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EU Elections: the issues and trends which will define Ireland’s polling day

June 5, 2024

The European Elections, taking place on 7 June in Ireland, will be heavily impacted by domestic politics, alongside broader trends which span the Union. Notably, 69% of Irish voters* say they are interested in the election, above the EU average, perhaps indicating there could be a higher turnout on polling day than many may have initially suspected.

These elections are also of importance to Britain, given our shared border in Northern Ireland, our shared political cooperation and the creation of offices by many British firms in the south in response to Brexit impacts on free trade with the European Union. A shared language and history, alongside competitive tax incentives, make Ireland the natural destination for British-based capital and personnel in order to easily access the single market; in the year following the Brexit vote, over 100,000 British firms registered in the republic. With Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union, Irish MEPs and their offices can also represent a key source of regulatory intelligence and agents of cooperation in Anglo-Irish trade.

Ireland and the State of the Union

Ireland has increasingly seen itself to be at the heart of the European project, with 88% of the general population supporting membership of the EU, one of the most staunchly pro-European nations amongst the 27 member states. During the Covid-19 crisis, almost half of Irish Citizens rated the European Commission between 7 to 10 out of 10 for their competence in dealing with the pandemic, well above the survey’s average of 39% across the UK, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Italy and Germany. As a result of these factors, Ireland generally enjoys constructive relations with the European Commission.

The outbreak of The Ukraine War in February of 2022 also posed a fundamental challenge to Ireland’s long-held policy of military neutrality, with the government repeatedly stating that Ireland is not politically neutral when it comes to its view on Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Ireland has to date welcomed almost 105,000 Ukrainian refugees under the EU Temporary Protection Directive and contributed €212 million in financial assistance, with €4.164 million in non-lethal military assistance being allocated to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility to support the EU Military Assistance Mission in support of Ukraine (EUMAM Ukraine).

With increasing pressure for the establishment of a European Defense Commissioner and the ongoing direct donation of ammunition to Ukraine through the European Commission, a segment of Irish voters may begin to feel uncomfortable with Europe’s move towards militarisation outside of NATO. Additionally, the views expressed by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the Israel-Palestine conflict differ profoundly from the vast majority of the Irish electorate and may trouble a significant portion of voters.

Brexit also marked a landmark moment in Ireland’s history as a young democracy, with the loss of our largest historical trading partner from the EU. Former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has since admitted that the Government did not anticipate Ireland’s economic resilience and strong growth in the aftermath of Brexit, with a widespread perception throughout all major political parties, both in government and opposition, that EU membership was a significant strategic asset in Ireland’s ability to prosper, despite the Brexit disruption, thereby solidifying a staunchly pro-European political atmosphere.

Ireland’s position within the Union is strong on two fronts; firstly, there is little credible or widespread opposition in Ireland to the European agenda. Secondly, Ireland enjoys strong relations throughout Europe and its EU institutions despite its small population, including deeply positive diplomatic relationships with its two major powers, in the form of Germany and most especially France. The government and body politic at large also still place a very strong emphasis on enhancing and continuing our trade and diplomatic relationship with the United Kingdom.

The issues and trends that will define 2024

Migration creating a new paradigm shift

42% of Irish voters* rank migration and asylum as a key issue, compared to an EU average of 24%. The emergence of asylum and migration as a key topic for Ireland’s EU elections represents a paradigm shift within the Irish political landscape, which has traditionally focused in on health, economy, education and housing as top priorities. Figures released in April suggest that Ireland could see 20,000 asylum seekers seek international protection in 2024, compared to 4,782 in 2019. This is partly attributed to the recent passage of The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill by Prime Minister Sunak’s majority.

Given the continuing media coverage of international protection applicants sleeping rough near the International Protection Office in Dublin City Centre throughout April and into May, and growing discontent with Fine Gael Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, this will remain a visible priority issue for Irish voters. This will likely be to the detriment of Government parties, as demonstrated in the rapid rise in support for independents in rural areas. The EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was recently narrowly passed by the European Parliament, will also ensure that immigration becomes a central force in shaping voter views.

The prioritisation of health presents new opportunities

For Irish voters, public health is seen as a key issue among 46% of voters*, likely a reflection of a long-term perception of deficiencies in the health service alongside lingering memories of the pandemic. The prioritisation of health among European voters offers a significant opportunity to public and private entities alike operating within the Irish healthcare ecosystem to design and promote solutions which improve efficiencies and the overall standard of care across the system. Additionally, the emphasis on health at EU level offers significant opportunities to the pharmaceutical and e-health sectors across the continent, with the proposed reform of EU pharma legislation set to enhance care across the Union.

Poverty, housing and economy

36% of voters say the fight against poverty and social exclusion is a priority, while 33% rank the economy as a key issue.* Ireland has endured strong economic growth over the past number of years, even while the broader EU economy has slowed. Yet, the housing crisis dominates the domestic political agenda as the issue consistently of most importance to the electorate in recent years. House building has been strong in early 2024, with Green Party Minister Eamon Ryan predicting that Ireland will exceed its target of 33,450 new builds with 40,000 projected. However, there is still a significant gap between the rate of construction and demand which will see house prices continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Many going to the European polls will be willing to punish government parties for their perceived domestic failures.

A splintered political landscape

It is difficult to think of a time when Ireland’s political landscape has been so fragmented, with no party currently polling above 30%. The evaporation of the civil war status quo, whereby governments would be led by one of either centrist Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, has created a new dynamic in Irish politics, reflective of advanced proportional representation parliamentary democracies across Europe, whereby centre-left and nationalist Sinn Féin are the dominant opposition party, yet do not possess any clear path to majority rule absent of a broad coalition which may have to include Fianna Fáil.

As such, because the EU elections are paired with local elections, it is likely that the final results will reflect our fractured polling which offers no clear and dominant winner. The growth in support for independents makes it increasingly difficult to see a breakthrough moment for any of the major parties at EU level, although there is scope for Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin to capture additional seats given their poorer than expected showing in 2019.

Looming general election and a green agenda in peril

The European and Local Elections will offer a significant insight into the potential results of the Irish General Election, which is likely to be called in autumn of this year. Fine Gael are likely to be the big loser in relative terms in the European Elections, having significantly overperformed in 2019, posing a notable immediate hurdle to new Taoiseach Simon Harris’ authority and the confidence he can command within his party. Local elections will likely also be a difficult outing for the party, with Fianna Fáil hoping, as a middle ground party, that they can capitalise on Fine Gael’s struggles by adding to their MEP tally with representation in the Midlands-North-West constituency. The performance of the Green Party in the other two constituencies, Ireland South and Dublin, may also offer an insight as to whether the Irish electorate has turned its back on the green agenda, in line with swathes of other EU nations.

Ultimately, Ireland’s European Elections are aligning with a relatively new national debate on immigration that has consumed so much of the rest of Europe in the last two decades. With migration being seen as fundamentally tied to the European project over the past decade, political pundits who foresee that 7 June will be a referendum on immigration are prudent in their thinking. It is so often the domestic which drowns out European-level policy debates, and it is what makes these elections so important to the government and opposition alike. Regardless, all of the large and establishment parties (a class which Sinn Féin is now a part of) will feel that they face dynamic headwinds which come in various forms of concern.

Irrespective of who prevails in the general election on this side of the Irish Sea, it is likely that both nations will enjoy broadly positive diplomatic and trade relations, with Ireland still being a particularly useful base of operations for British companies wishing to trade within the European Union.


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A version of this blog was previously published on the 360 magazine. 360, a FINN Partners company.

*Country Factsheet: Ireland

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