Ireland: Date set for 2020 general election

January 14, 2020

Voters will go to the polls in Ireland on 8 February, Leo Varadkar has announced, saying the time is right to call a general election.

"I always said that the election should happen at the best time for the country. Now is that time," said the Irish prime minister.

Explaining why, he said a deal on Brexit had been achieved for an "orderly" departure of the UK from the European Union, and a deal agreed to restore Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.

"There will be no hard border, citizens' rights have been protected and the Common Travel Area will remain in place," he said.

Mr Varadkar stressed that Brexit talks were far from over, "in fact, it's only half-time", he said, outlining that the next step was to negotiate a free trade agreement between the EU, Ireland and Britain.

"There exists now a window of opportunity to hold a general election and to have a new government in place before the next European Council meeting in March with a strong mandate to focus on these negotiations into the summer and autumn," he said.

On the domestic front, Mr Varadkar said "our economy has never been stronger" and that there were more people at work than ever before.

"As a nation, we have every reason to be hopeful about the future. We've modernised our society - marriage equality, women's rights, real progress in education, welfare and childcare," he said.

"But, it's not enough. I know it's not enough. People want their government to do much more. And I want us to do much more."

He will now visit Aras an Uachtarain - the president's official residence - to ask President Michael D Higgins to dissolve parliament, the president's office confirmed in a statement.

The dissolution of parliament will formally mark the start of the election campaign.

Over the weekend, Mr Varadkar told RTE Radio One that he had decided on the timing of an election, but said protocol prevented him from revealing it.

Speculation was further driven as pictures emerged of staff erecting posters of Mr Varadkar in his constituency.

Health and housing are likely to be the two major issues the parties will focus their campaigns on.

The state continues to battle its worst ever housing crisis, and hospital overcrowding reached record-breaking levels last year.

Mr Varadkar's minority Fine Gael-led administration has been propped up by a confidence-and-supply deal with Fianna Fail, along with the support of several independent TDs, since an inconclusive 2016 general election.

It had been facing potential defeat in a vote of no confidence in Health Minister Simon Harris in the first week of February. That prospect will now be averted.

However, concerns have been raised over the timing of the election.

Thousands of people may not be registered to vote as the latest 2020 electoral register is currently still in draft form and will not become valid until 15 February.

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Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin welcomed the election, saying: "Things are simply not working in this country in so many areas."

He said he had "no problem" with the date, and added the conversation with Mr Varadkar about the end of the confidence and supply agreement took "about one second".

The announcement comes a day after Mr Varadkar's visit to Belfast for meetings with the leaders of Northern Ireland's restored power-sharing executive.

The Taoiseach and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held talks with Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at Stormont.

Mr Varadkar confirmed that the "Good Friday Agreement is back up and running again" and that he was looking forward to close cooperation between Britain and Ireland as a new relationship is established after the UK leaves the EU at the end of the month.

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