Stage is set for dramatic year in political life

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

Referendums and the publication of the Mahon tribunal report point to an eventful year, writes NOEL WHELAN

WE ENTER the 2012 political year with some known knowns and some known unknowns. We know in the first instance that there is no scheduled election in 2012.

Notwithstanding this, 2012 still looks packed with potential political drama.

Voters are likely to be asked to go to the polls many times in the year, but to vote in referendums rather than elections.

A children’s rights referendum looks extremely likely. The Government is seeking to frame a text reflecting the intent of that suggested by the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on Children but avoiding some of the legal pitfalls identified by the Attorney General’s office with the committee’s wording.

After the debacle of the Oireachtas inquiries some in Government are a little referendum shy. However, the children’s referendum is likely to be different from those concerning reform of political institutions. While there will be some opposition, the Government effort will be supplemented by a range of non-government groups who will also actively campaign in a co-ordinated way for a Yes vote.

We don’t know whether there will also be a referendum on the proposed abolition of the Seanad. Wild rumours flew around in the weeks before Christmas suggesting the Government might hold this Seanad referendum before the end of March. There were even suggestions that the Government might propose the abolition of the Seanad with immediate effect. This latter suggestion seems unlikely not least because of practical and legal difficulties.

On the other hand any rush in the next few weeks to launch a referendum to abolish the Seanad, when such a change could not be implemented until after the next election, makes little sense and smacks of seeking to appear to engage in political reform rather than delivering real change. There has been a subtle but significant shift in the language used by Ministers about this referendum. One time they spoke of a referendum to abolish the Seanad; now they talk more softly about putting the issue before the people for consideration.

We do know that this year will see the establishment of a constitutional convention. We are told that within weeks the Government will detail how it will be composed, the extent of its remit and the force, if any, of its recommendations. It will be fascinating to see how the Government seeks to reconcile the differing expectations now attaching to the convention idea. In the last few months I have heard Ministers from each Government party, various academic commentators on political reform, the president of the Human Rights Commission and even President Michael D Higgins himself all advance different understandings of what the convention will involve. Some, if not all of them, are likely to be disappointed when the final form is revealed.

Among the known events, or at least presumed events of 2012, is the publication of the Mahon tribunal report. Mind you, its publication was also presumed at the beginning of 2011. However, publication does now seem imminent. Notwithstanding the fact that it will deal with past events and that the main focus will be on now retired Bertie Ahern, the report is still likely to have a significant political impact.

It will be interesting to see what view the tribunal takes of the extent of its terms of reference and the extent to which it can comment on the detail of Ahern’s personal financial arrangements as revealed in evidence. The very publication of the report will do further damage to his reputation and may create a political storm.

Much of the report’s likely content was revealed in evidence at the tribunal in 2007 and 2008 but at a time when Ahern enjoyed majority public approval ratings. It must be remembered that he secured re-election as taoiseach in 2007 despite public knowledge of many of the most damning allegations. Now, however, his reputation and that of his party are greatly diminished.

The Mahon report and consequent public reaction will present particular difficulties for the current Fianna Fáil leader at a time when his party’s position continues to be vulnerable. Not only will it serve as a reminder of those aspects of Fianna Fáil’s recent past which have proved most toxic with voters, it will also test in a very public way the new leader’s contention that the party has turned over a new leaf.

Coverage of the report’s publication will be accompanied by replays of clips of Ahern’s then ministers defending his evidence to the tribunal. There is every possibility that the report will be so damning of Ahern’s actions that it will lead to demands from those anxious to renew the party’s image that Ahern be censured or even expelled from the party. Any such moves are likely to be met with real resistance from the sizeable pro-Ahern lobby in the party and even from Ahern himself.

The greatest political challenges for both Government and Opposition in 2012, however, are likely to come from the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns.

Of the former, the prospects of a referendum on European issues are the most significant. It is not certain but likely that a referendum will be required on the proposals for greater European fiscal and economic integration. The debate around that issue will dominate the political scene for months and have implications for decades.

All of which heralds another dramatic year and that is before the inevitable occurrence of unknown unknowns.