Formidable challenges ahead
The Government is facing into a make-or-break year as it struggles to introduce reforms involving taxation, the public service and local government, while securing EU concessions on the national debt and dealing with the abortion issue. Most of that agenda has been inherited. But the manner of its execution, coupled with the economic outlook, will decide the future election prospects of both Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
The tragic death of minister of state Shane McEntee, a committed public servant whose career was marked by a concern for the needs of others, has highlighted the immense pressure faced by legislators amid a coarsening of the public discourse on political issues. Too often, legitimate indignation over the origins and impact of the economic crisis can degenerate into cruel personal abuse of politicians, the overwhelming majority of whom are seeking to serve the public interest as they perceive it.
The need for a calmer, more respectful tone will be especially acute in the early months of 2013, when legislation giving effect to the Supreme Court ruling in the X case will, no doubt, dominate proceedings. The Catholic hierarchy has thrown its support behind the 1983 constitutional amendment that sought to give equivalent rights to the foetus and mother, even when the life of the mother was at risk. Public opinion has moved on that issue, however, and Catholic doctrine has lost much of its influence. In spite of that, political parties – and Fine Gael TDs, in particular – will tread warily.
Minister for Health James Reilly will, once again, be at the heart of a political storm when he seeks to reassure the public of the necessity for legislation and regulations. Controversy engulfed him on a number of occasions during the year over personal and political matters. It brought the resignation of minister of state Róisín Shortall when he favoured his constituency with a community health centre. Unrealistic budgetary provisions added to his difficulties when health services had to be pared back.
A full-blown property tax, long regarded as necessary to balance the taxation system, will take effect from mid-year. Local authority structures are due to undergo fundamental change in advance of the local elections in 2014. All town councils will be abolished and an estimated 600 councillors will no longer be required. The Croke Park deal, which gave rise to friction between Fine Gael and Labour during the year, will remain under critical scrutiny. Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan has already questioned the policy of reducing numbers rather than cutting pay. Public sector unions have been asked to deliver an additional €1 billion in savings by 2015. How that can be achieved without addressing increments and allowances for existing staff remains unclear. Difficult negotiations lie ahead. New recruits will be treated differently, however, and nurses have been offered a 20 per cent cut in starting salaries by the Health Service Executive.
A constitutional convention finally got under way with limited terms of reference. Its very existence, however, offers the prospect of political innovation and its recommendations on reform of the electoral system will be eagerly awaited.
Street protests and rioting in Belfast in September, following rejection of a ruling by the Parades Commission, provided early warning that, while the power-sharing Executive and the Assembly functioned normally at Stormont, inter-community tensions were growing. A decision to limit the number of days the British union flag will fly over Belfast City Hall brought loyalists on to the streets in December and caused serious economic disruption.
In the Republic, economic and social developments were reflected by the rise and fall of public opinion towards political parties. High unemployment and declining living standards saw the Labour Party singled out for particular criticism and it fell to fourth position in the polls. Initially, Sinn Féin moved into second place behind Fine Gael. But it forfeited that position to Fianna Fáil after the fiscal treaty referendum when the public concluded there was no such thing as pain-free financing. Within Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin confronted Éamon Ó Cuív and stripped him of party positions when the deputy leader adopted a Eurosceptic position and urged an alliance with Sinn Féin.
The close of the year brought improving news on the economic front with more job announcements. Ireland’s EU presidency will focus on promoting economic growth and job creation while advocating debt-relief measures. The range of challenges at home and abroad is formidable.