The loom­ing threat of Brexit – and wari­ness of an elec­tion – saw the un­easy co-op­er­a­tion be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil con­tinue

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - 2018 REVIEW - Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor Pat Leahy

We are in a time of big things in pol­i­tics. Those of us who lived through the decade and a half of post- Cold War sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity had our com­pla­cent as­sump­tions shat­tered by the fi­nan­cial crash of 2008 – and the grind­ing aus­ter­ity that fol­lowed it.

But the po­lit­i­cal era that suc­ceeded the age of aus­ter­ity has been even more dis­cor­dant. Decades of con­sen­sus have been ripped up. There is no telling what will hap­pen in the next 12 months. Sel­dom has pol­i­tics been so ur­gent, so con­se­quen­tial.

In Ire­land, 2018 was dom­i­nated by one of the age’s great dis­lo­ca­tions: Brexit. Do­mes­ti­cally, the agenda was dom­i­nated by the ref­er­en­dum on abor­tion.

In Le­in­ster House, the nec­es­sary but un­easy co-op­er­a­tion be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was main­tained and ex­tended by these best of po­lit­i­cal frenemies as na­tional and party in­ter­ests con­tin­ued to co­in­cide. Their co- op­er­a­tion in pro­vid­ing a sta­ble gov­ern­ment at a time of un­prece­dented ex­ter­nal tur­moil – fre­quently scratchy though it may be – stands in vivid con­trast to the de­struc­tive op­por­tunism at West­min­ster.

Micheál Martin has aligned his de­sire to avoid an im­me­di­ate elec­tion with the na­tional im­per­a­tive for a set­tled gov­ern­ment with an unas­sail­able ma­jor­ity on the big ques­tions. It was a deft piece of pol­i­tics.


For the In­de­pen­dents in Gov­ern­ment and out­side, the year was mixed at best. Sev­eral ru­ral In­de­pen­dents made a long Dáil stand against a tight­en­ing of drink-driv­ing penal­ties, the sort of Bill that civil ser­vants give min­is­ters to keep them oc­cu­pied and get them on the air­waves.

In this case, the Min­is­ter was an­other un­happy In­de­pen­dent, Min­is­ter for Trans­port Shane Ross. He fi­nally suc­ceeded in putting the road traf­fic Bill on the statute books but his cher­ished ju­di­cial ap­point­ments Bill – the stan­dard in his cru­sade against what he calls “crony­ism” – re­mains ma­rooned in the Seanad, op­posed by the ju­di­ciary and the le­gal pro­fes­sion, and unloved by Fine Gael.

It is dif­fi­cult to gen­er­alise about the In­de­pen­dents and small par­ties out­side Gov­ern­ment, rang­ing as they do from small par­ties of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary left to ru­ral In­de­pen­dents such as Mat­tie McGrath and the Healy-Raes, who made head­lines with their op­po­si­tion to the abor­tion leg­is­la­tion.

But taken as a group, polls sug­gest that sup­port for In­de­pen­dents and small par­ties has halved since the last gen­eral elec­tion. If any­thing like that is re­peated at the next gen­eral elec­tion, there will be a mas­sacre of In­de­pen­dent TDs. This is be­gin­ning to dawn on many of them. For the In­de­pen­dents in Gov­ern­ment, it means one thing: stay in as long as we can.

Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin changed its leader, bid­ding farewell to the tow­er­ing fig­ure of Gerry Adams and wel­com­ing t he woman he had groomed for years for the lead­er­ship. Her first year is prov­ing dif­fi­cult.

Mary Lou McDon­ald had sig­nalled even be­fore she be­came leader – un­op­posed, tes­ta­ment again to the party’s rigid if lately creak­ing cul­ture of dis­ci­pline – that she would change Sinn Féin’s stance on coali­tion. McDon­ald sig­nalled she was open to be­com­ing a mi­nor­ity part­ner in a gov­ern­ment led by ei­ther Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. This would open up the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing in gov­ern­ment in Dublin and Belfast at the one time.

Any such ad­min­is­tra­tion in Dublin would have Ir­ish unity as one of its chief pri­or­i­ties – for the first time since par­ti­tion. But it re­quires ei­ther Micheál Martin or Leo Varad­kar to in­vite McDon­ald into gov­ern­ment. Ei­ther may yet do this, but dur­ing the year they re­peat­edly and un­am­bigu­ously ruled it out.

This does two things: it sug­gests that co-op­er­a­tion be­tween Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – in what­ever guise – will be nec­es­sary to form gov­ern­ments in the fu­ture; and it ma­roons Sinn Féin in Op­po­si­tion. The re­buff of Sinn Féin may well have been one of the most im­por­tant things to hap­pen po­lit­i­cally this year.

Bud­get warn­ing

The econ­omy con­tin­ued to roar, with cor­po­ra­tion tax re­ceipts from ner­vous multi­na­tion­als flood­ing the ex­che­quer. But the bulging pub­lic fi­nances were spent in a way that alarmed the Gov­ern­ment’s own in­de­pen­dent bud­get watch­dog, the Fis­cal Advisory Coun­cil. It warned in a re­port that stung – and was meant to sting – that the Gov­ern­ment was re­peat­ing the mis­takes of the past by in­creas­ing pub­lic spend­ing on the back of un­re­li­able wind­fall tax rev­enues.

When the rev­enues sub­side, the spend­ing obli­ga­tions re­main. The coun­cil’s re­port speared Min­is­ter for Fi­nance Paschal Dono­hoe’s claims of fis­cal pru­dence. With pub­lic pay claims back­ing up like air­craft queu­ing to land, Dono­hoe has a job on his hands to re­store his “Pru­dent Paschal” tag. It will take a fierce po­lit­i­cal fight to do it, in­side the Cabi­net and out­side it.


As ever, fail­ures by the State were a run­ning theme. The long tor­ment of Garda whistle­blower Mau­rice McCabe was fi­nally ended with his vin­di­ca­tion by an­other tri­bunal and his re­tire­ment from the force, while for the first time an out­sider, Drew Har­ris, was ap­pointed to head An Garda Síochána.

The bungling of in­form­ing women about mis­taken smear tests con­vulsed an al­ready bat­tered health sys­tem and prompted the early de­par­ture of Health Ser­vice Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor gen­eral Tony O’Brien in the face of fierce crit­i­cism from some of the women af­fected, no­tably Vicky Phel an and the late E mm aM hic Mhathúna.

Min­is­ter for Health Si­mon Har­ris was pro­tected to some de­gree by pub­lic and me­dia ap­proval of his cam­paign­ing on abor­tion. But with health spend­ing again chron­i­cally over bud­get, that won’t last for­ever.

Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion

Michael D Hig­gins se­cured a sec­ond term as Pres­i­dent of Ire­land, af­ter a cam­paign that saw him face ques­tions about his prom­ise seven years ago to serve only one term, his ex­penses and the gen­eral opac­ity of the Áras. But Hig­gins rose re­gally above the fray, re­ly­ing on his ex­tra­or­di­nary per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity and the short­com­ings of the poor slate of can­di­dates nom­i­nated to chal­lenge him.

He won on the first count, though Peter Casey took nearly a quar­ter of the vote af­ter a cam­paign that in­cluded neg­a­tive com­ments about Trav­ellers (to the con­ster­na­tion of many ob­servers). Since the elec­tion Casey has faded back into ob­scu­rity.

At a time of anti- po­lit­i­cal rage in much of the West, Hig­gins’s elec­tion rep­re­sented a sig­nif­i­cant en­dorse­ment of our way of do­ing pol­i­tics. He is un­mis­tak­ably a man of the left, who has spent a life­time in pol­i­tics pursuing – of­ten im­pa­tiently – left- wing goals and causes. But he has done so ex­clu­sively though the medium of demo­cratic, elec­toral pol­i­tics.

He was per­haps hap­pi­est in Gov­ern­ment, ac­cept­ing com­pro­mises, wield­ing power, mak­ing changes, leav­ing a legacy. The elec­torate was of­fered un­po­lit­i­cal and anti- po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates of var­i­ous hues for the pres­i­dency; they chose – by a land­slide – some­one who was very much of the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.


The other land­slide was in the abor­tion ref­er­en­dum – a mo­ment and a cam­paign in­vested with such emo­tion and sig­nif­i­cance for in­di­vid­ual peo­ple ( on both sides) that most will re­mem­ber for many years where they were when the re­sult was an­nounced.

The cam­paign to re­peal the con­sti­tu­tional ban on abor­tion had grown in civil so­ci­ety and grass­roots groups for years, but took on a new and ur­gent char­ac­ter in re­cent years, es­pe­cially since the death of Savita Halap­panavar in 2012. The move­ment of Ir­ish so­ci­ety was in a so­cially lib­eral di­rec­tion; it had been for years, even be­fore the same-sex mar­riage ref­er­en­dum of 2015 blared it loudly to the world.

This year, the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem took hold of that re­form­ing en­ergy and made it into con­sti­tu­tional change and leg­is­la­tion. Micheál Martin backed it, shock­ing many of his TDs but not, polling sug­gested, his party’s vot­ers.

Si­mon Har­ris made the is­sue a per­sonal cru­sade, iden­ti­fy­ing with it per­son­ally to such an ex­tent that one re­peal cam­paigner, cel­e­brat­ing on the day of the count in Dublin Cas­tle, car­ried an “I fancy Si­mon Har­ris” plac­ard. These were not, it is fair to say, nor­mal times in pol­i­tics.

Some left-wing politi­cians who had cam­paigned for years for abor­tion re­form com­plained they were be­ing writ­ten out of the script, and even seemed to re­sent the con­ver­sion of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment’s back­ing of change, its per­sua­sion of doubters and wa­ver­ers, was an im­por­tant as­pect of the change. That is how pol­i­tics works.

In the end, the tri­umph of the re­peal cam­paign was over­whelm­ing. The leg­is­la­tion giv­ing ef­fect to the ref­er­en­dum was passed a fort­night be­fore Christ­mas.

HSE di­rec­tor gen­eral Tony O’Brien re­signed in the face of fierce crit­i­cism, no­tably from Vicky Phe­lan [above] and the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna


The year ended as it had be­gun – with Brexit as the great un­known hov­er­ing over the im­me­di­ate fu­ture of the coun­try and its pol­i­tics.

The tough stance adopted by Ire­land and the Euro­pean Union – in­sist­ing on the back­stop, and on their terms, too – al­lied to the floun­der­ing of the in­creas­ingly hap­less Theresa May, has pro­duced a sit­u­a­tion fraught with risk and un­cer­tainty. Com­pared with 12 months ago, a re­ver­sal of the Brexit de­ci­sion is now more likely. But so is a dis­as­trous crash-out Brexit.

The mid­dle ground op­tion – a soft­ish Brexit that keeps the UK aligned to the EU for a pe­riod and main­tains an open bor­der in Ire­land – is the one that has re­ceded.

EU lead­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with May. She ap­pears to have lost au­thor­ity in her party, her par­lia­ment and her cabi­net. As the year closes, no-deal prepa­ra­tions are the or­der of the day.

Brexit has brought a wreck­ing ball to the norms and equi­lib­rium of Bri­tish pol­i­tics. If the UK crashes out of the EU with­out a deal, it could yet have the same ef­fect here.


Clock­wise from main: Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDon­ald, and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Varad­kar and Martin have re­peat­edly ruled out go­ing into gov­ern­ment with McDon­ald’s party.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.