The year of lost sparkle
This was the year the Government for National Recovery finally began to lose some of its lustre, when the flag heralding a democratic revolution began to look a little tattered in those chill winds blowing from the recession-hit Continent.
The Fine Gael-Labour coalition had suffered setbacks in the first year of power but the evidence pointed to more successes than failures until its first anniversary in March.
It had pushed through a tough budget, although not without some difficulties and embarrassing U-turns. It met all the stringent targets laid down in the rescue package overseen by the troika. Enda Kenny assumed the role of Taoiseach with an ease and authority few could have predicted, although his weakness – and his tendency to be supercilious – showed at times. There was relatively good success in meeting the targets of the programme for government. There was some political reform but, as in all governments, the zeal for it in opposition was not matched in Government and it has been at most incremental rather than “revolutionary”. There was also a high degree of cohesion between the parties, especially evident in the high level of trust between Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny.
At the end of May the Government, supported by Fianna Fáil and some Independents, had considerable success when the potentially problematic fiscal treaty referendum was passed with a comfortable majority. That was the high point.
The children’s referendum in the autumn also passed but with a tight majority and carping criticism of the Government’s information campaign from the Supreme Court. Part of the No vote reflected disillusionment with the Coalition.
Elsewhere were indications that the high-water mark may have been reached. The Coalition parties had made expansive promises they knew they couldn’t keep. As the EU recession deepened, unemployment figures remained stubbornly high. The Government’s growth figures were revised downwards and the difficulties in meeting key aims became apparent.
Ups and downs
Some big jobs initiatives were launched – in January a 300-point plus plan to create 100,000 jobs by 2016; in July a €2.25 billion infrastructure plan to fund 13,000 jobs – but they have yet to make an impact. The Government’s promise to reduce the legacy bank burden has become almost as complicated as the plot of the cult Danish TV series The Killing. Just when the Government seems to have the quarry in its sights, there is another twist.
The fallow first few months of the year gave way to the June 29th EU summit and an apparent breakthrough. But then there were missed deadlines and the serious setback when the German, Finnish and Dutch finance ministers said so-called “legacy assets”, such as old bank debt, should remain “under the responsibility of national authorities” and not of the European Stability Mechanism. The nadir came in October when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, confirmed the new ESM would not deal with legacy debt. Kenny staged a quick – and necessary – recovery of the situation when, two days later, both leaders issued a joint statement reaffirming Ireland’s “special position”. March is the new deadline, but there is still uncertainty.