Irish Election Follows Hot on Brexit’s Heels

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced a national election would be held Feb. 8. Photo: bryan meade/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Ireland faces its first national election since the U.K. decided to leave the European Union, a split that poses economic dangers for the Irish as talks on the future trade relationship loom.

Brexit has been Leo Varadkar’s main preoccupation since he became Ireland’s prime minister in June 2017, a year after the U.K. voted to leave the EU.

The Irish government’s main aim during negotiations between the U.K. and the EU over the terms of the split was to prevent the return of a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland—the region that remained part of the U.K. when the rest gained independence almost a century ago. In the withdrawal agreement that will see the U.K. leave the EU on Jan. 31, Mr. Varadkar achieved that goal.

In his election campaign, Mr. Varadkar’s Fine Gael party will argue that the job is unfinished, and that he is best placed to protect Ireland’s interests during a new phase of talks that will determine the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU, including the terms of a new trade deal.

Ireland wants to keep new trade barriers to a minimum, particularly for agricultural goods, since its farmers rely heavily on sales to the U.K.

“Brexit is not done yet. It’s only half-time,” Mr. Varadkar said, announcing that a general election will be held Feb. 8.

However, non-Brexit issues may play a larger role in deciding the composition of the next government, including a shortage of affordable housing, and problems in the health care system, which is partly state-run.

“The government has had a very good Brexit,” said Brigid Laffan, an Irish professor of politics at the European University Institute in Italy. “Unfortunately for them, it will have no bearing on the outcome.”

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Mr. Varadkar acknowledged that voters were frustrated at the government’s slow progress in addressing housing and health care issues, and that “many people don’t feel the strength of our economy in their pockets.”

Ireland’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, driven in part by a surge in investment from U.S. technology and pharmaceutical firms that have their European headquarters there. The country’s unemployment rate was 4.8% in December, its lowest level since the start of 2007.

Most recent opinion polls place Fine Gael neck-and-neck with its main rival Fianna Fáil, another center-right party. The two parties, which have their roots in the civil war that followed Irish independence, have governed Ireland for most of its post-independence existence.

Mr. Varadkar’s difficulty capitalizing on the Brexit success is partly because responsibility for it is seen as shared. While he gets some of the credit, so too do the opposition politicians who suspended normal hostilities and allowed the government to pursue a clear course. Mr. Varadkar’s government has relied on the goodwill of Fianna Fáil to survive since Fine Gael fell short of a majority in the February 2016 election, even with the support of friendly independent lawmakers.

Fianna Fáil’s goodwill was offered on the basis that Brexit posed a severe threat to Ireland that fresh elections could only heighten. But with Brexit set to take place with no physical border that might have triggered violence, normal politics can resume.

Write to Paul Hannon at paul.hannon@wsj.com

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