As 2018 comes to an end, we reflect on a tumultuous year in Irish politics that’s finishing with a degree of stability suddenly taking hold. Míchéal Martin signing Fianna Fáil up to an extension of the Confidence and Supply agreement, until the Brexit chaos is resolved, has killed all expectation of a Spring time General Election with Government Ministers and their departments now able to completely focus on getting the country Brexit ready. Although this has been heralded as a noble act of putting country ahead of party, there will no doubt be many angered by this decision also. There is no doubt, but that Brexit is the greatest threat to the country since the global financial crash over a decade ago. However, many also point to housing and health in this country already being in crisis along with many other issues that plague to the day to day lives of many Irish citizens. A change of Government may well be what many of the people caught up in these crises need, nevertheless, the political cost of a General Election, and the expected protracted negotiations on forming a Government there after, would be colossal at a time our nearest neighbours are teetering on the verge of crashing out of the EU without a deal onnour future trading relationship.
Martin’s decision is the correct one, even though many, me included, have long since lost patience with the Confidence and Supply agreement and this Governments failure to deliver on key issues like health, housing and rural decline. There is a very real sense on the streets and the doorsteps that people want a change, the issue being, they don’t trust any of the other options better than the devil they know. Opinion poll support for the traditional big two parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is trending upwards from its historic low in the 2016. Sinn Féin, seeing as toxic by most other parties, is now fully entrenched as the 3rd party in what has traditionally been a 2 and a half party state. Until such a time that this political landscape dramatically changes or one of the big two decides to do business with SF in Government, the current lack of appetite for an election will not improve. It’s not that either of the larger parties necessarily fear an election, with both set to make gains if polls are correct, but that they each don’t want to face up to Government negotiations and the Sinn Féin question thereafter. Now that the ‘Provos’ have said they are willing to work as a junior partner in a coalition, the ball has been firmly placed in the court of the ‘Civil War parties’.
With that in mind, this year’s political winners and losers are very difficult to pick. As 2018 draws to a close, it’s hard to see anyone in Irish politics that had a stellar 12 months. Mary Lou McDonald’s ascension to the throne of Sinn Féin leader and strategy to move the party to a position of ‘ready for Government’ would have been a win, if it wasn’t for her very poor decision to run a Presidential candidate, thereby forcing an election that wasn’t wanted by a huge majority of people. Her party’s very poor showing laid bare their small core support and ultimately, weakened their overall image. Leo Varadkar did what few thought possible last January and survived through the year without an election. There were also wins with referenda and a strong showing on the international stage in the Brexit talks. However, the issues at home with worsening housing and hospital waiting lists along with scandal after crisis in his Government meant a lot of the sheen from his achievements has been dulled by poor domestic policy despite an economy that’s the fastest growing in Europe. Martin also had a mixed year with a brave personal decision to come out and fully back the abortion referendum Yes campaign ahead of almost all other political heavy weights. His inability to take a majority of his Parliamentary Party with him though left Fianna Fáil looking out of touch with the majority of the electorate in the aftermath of the result. Failing as well to really hurt the Government despite the many policy failures and scandals and languishing an average of 5% behind FG in the polls is causing more concern for his continued leadership. The party will need a good showing in the local elections. It was also a bad year for smaller parties too who look like they are once again being squeezed out in favour of the larger blocks as the old order sets about restoring itself.
On a local front, this was certainly a good year for Dr. Michael Harty and Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley. Harty freed himself from the shackles of Government support, came out strong on the referendum question and has, in recent months, stood up and made a lot of noise about the plight of rural Ireland; the chief issue he was elected on almost 3 years ago. Similarly, Dooley was very visible and vocal on the abortion question and his message echoed that of the overwhelmingly large portion of the Clare electorate. He also saw the resignation of his Government counterpart, the former Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, after Dooley lead the charge on the rural broadband controversy and championed transparency, value for taxpayer money and urgency in rolling out the scheme. Conversely, it hasn’t been a great year for Joe Carey and Min. Pat Breen. Both were very quiet around the time of the referendum and frequently dodged questions in the run up to the vote on whether to hold the it. Breen did eventually make a strong statement on the issue, but neither was very visible throughout the campaign. Breen also had some tough questions to answer about his role in the rural broadband controversy after it was revealed he set up the private dinner between then Min. Naughten and the lead of the last remaining bidder for the contract. Carey continues to suffer from Government backbencher syndrome; an ailment that severely restricts a TD’s media appearances and thereby cuts off a major outlet to connect with their electorate. Many would say that he is one of several TD’s most happy with the lack of an election early in the New Year.
With focus now squarely on local and European elections for 2019, expect issues like Brexit, hospital trolleys and education funding to be replaced on the doors by roads, local property tax and commercial rates. With European candidates not yet in the field, this campaigning will largely be mass media focused rather than on the doorsteps. One might gambit that should Fine Gael underperform in these elections, a General Election will follow on rather quickly. If not, we may be talking about the Government limping on this time next year again. A week is a long time in politics; a year is a veritable political epoch however. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. 2019 will be interesting to say the least!