Pat Leahy: Four political trends we will not be able to avoid in 2020
Immigration and climate change are among the issues set to define Irish politics
Verona Murphy votes at Ramsgrange Parish Hall in Wexford during a byelection in late November. File photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
End of the year, end of the decade; time to reflect and assess. Doubtless you’ll read plenty reviews of 2019 and of the 2010s over the coming days as we strive to fit politics neatly into time-stamped boxes.
But politics, like life, is a continuum, influenced by what went before even as it always looks to the future. Here are four important political trends that emerged in Irish politics this year which will continue to exert a significant influence in 2020:
1. Immigration is edging its way into the Irish political discourse
This week, Fine Gael threw Verona Murphy off the ticket in Wexford, following a controversial byelection campaign in which she raised questions about the influence of Isis amongst asylum seekers. Murphy’s defenestration demonstrates two things that will become further apparent next year. Firstly, that candidates will respond if they believe there is public concern about immigration-related issues, including the opening of accommodation centres for asylum seekers, and secondly, that parties will clamp down on the issues being used in a manner that could leave them open to accusations of racism or xenophobia.
There have been protests about the placing of direct provision centres (concerns which have in some places been overcome by engagement and consultation) and there are doubtless more to come. The interventions of Galway Independent Noel Grealish – unburdened by the supervision of a party apparatus concerned about what the media says – may be a sign of what is to come. For years, despite relatively high levels of immigration here, there was more or less no public debate about it. That time may be coming to an end. Irish politics is going to have to figure out how to talk about this.
2. The economy is booming but there are danger signals
Strong economic growth and fiscal discipline have allowed Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to finish 2019 with a hefty surplus. He is once again fortunate with record corporation-tax receipts, as the tech and pharma sectors continue their goose-laying-golden-eggs routine. But Donohoe also managed to avoid a pre-election budget splurge and controlled the overspending that has required large bailouts for some Government departments (notably health) in recent years. Months before an election, this is quite an achievement and probably the year’s outstanding example of good government.
But there are warning bells everywhere. Brexit, international uncertainty and tax changes for multinationals are all looming in the middle distance. Both the ESRI and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council have warned that bumper corporation tax revenues may not last and their disappearance will present a major challenge for whatever government is in place. Planning for and dealing with an economic slowdown – gradual or sudden – is a challenge that faces not just the Fine Gael-led Government but any party that will contest the next general election. A key question: what do you do if the corporation tax receipts start to decline?
3. Climate change is not going away
The science is pretty clear, even if predicting the future is a dicey business in any walk of life. Man-made global warming will continue to disrupt the climate; efforts to minimise it will continue to be high on the political agenda. And while Ireland’s carbon emissions are irrelevant on a global scale, we will be bound to the targets and reduction mechanism agreed at an EU level.
All parties pay lip service to the goal of reducing carbon emissions. It is far from clear that they are prepared to endure the political unpopularity that will accompany many of the measures required to achieve those goals. At the same time, Ireland’s traditional inability to plan strategically in areas like transport will become more and more of a handicap.
Planning for climate change – both mitigating its effects and reducing carbon emission – will be a huge challenge for Irish politics for the foreseeable future. Not just the actual measures – but managing the politics surrounding them. Whatever about the political will, it is highly doubtful that the public is ready for the sort of changes to its behaviour and daily life that meaningful climate action seems to require. The experience with issues like water charges would not engender great confidence that this will change. For the politicians, shrugging and blaming the EU is unlikely to be sufficient.
4. Change is coming in the North
The political effects of Brexit may only be beginning. We have seen in 2019 that the old certainties in Northern Ireland – that a majority of MPs from the North would be unionists, for a start – are no longer reliable.
Sinn Féin has been beating the unity drum ever louder, even if that sometimes seems to be for its own political purposes. Organisations like Ireland’s Future are seeking a national conversation on the subject of unity, though their appeals will sound to many unionist ears like a pan-nationalist chorus. Certainly, attempts to engage unionists in that “national conversation” seem to be sketchy. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin both argue that now, when unionist anxieties are heightened by Brexit, is not the time to have the unity debate.
Wherever this goes in 2020, it is not going away. There may be little chance for the foreseeable future that the British government would decide to hold a unity referendum (which is how such a vote happens under the Belfast Agreement) and little chance either that the next Irish government will encourage them to do it. But this year has made clear that change – or at least the possibility of change – is in the air. That sense will not go away.