A year of living dangerously as Dáil breaks with past

News Review of 2016: International turmoil was the last thing ‘new politics’ needed

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: The Dáil and the Government did operate in a different way, but that wasn’t because the culture of politics had changed; it was because the Government didn’t have a majority. Photograph: Alan Betson

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: The Dáil and the Government did operate in a different way, but that wasn’t because the culture of politics had changed; it was because the Government didn’t have a majority. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Politics in Ireland changed abruptly in 2016. The changes were domestic – a new Government operating in novel circumstances – and foreign, where the European Union, the UK and the US – Ireland’s three most important political and economic relationships – also experienced a rupture with the past.

A hundred years on from Ireland’s own rupture with the past, the political outlook has not seemed so uncertain for years.

The challenge always when looking back over a year’s events is to separate the significant from the merely newsworthy. What are the events that historians will remember in 20 years time? What will they have forgotten by the time the turkey is digested? What actually mattered, and what was just ephemeral?

The year began counting down to the general election; in fact, much of the second half of 2015 had been devoted to the same, mostly fruitless, activity. By the beginning of this year, however, Dáil term limits meant that the election campaign had to start within a matter of weeks. Parties began the year scrambling to complete their final preparations, as the clock ticked down.

Because it controls the calling of the election, the advantage is always with the incumbent government in these circumstances. But the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, riven by behind-the-scenes divisions on election timing, strategy and co-ordination, contrived to fritter away that advantage.

The long-planned first day of the campaign went badly awry, with a messy announcement in the Dáil (the Taoiseach neglecting to name the actual date for polling day), an awkward farewell scene between Enda Kenny and Joan Burton at Government Buildings, and a bungled first Fine Gael press conference at which the Taoiseach faltered badly on questions about economic policy.

As it had begun, so it continued. The Fine Gael campaign misfired badly, while Labour’s worst fears were realised. Labour’s trauma was severe – and ongoing, judging by the extent to which Brendan Howlin and Joan Burton continue to talk defensively about the last government.

Life support

Fianna Fáil

If 2016 was, as the editors of a recent book declared it, the “election that nobody won”, then it was certainly clear who had lost it. Fine Gael lost a third of its seats; Labour was flayed alive, dropping to just seven seats. After the election the party was on life support – and still is, really.

Spoils and responsibilities

Micheál Martin wouldn’t bite. But he did offer to facilitate Fine Gael leadership of a minority government, if Kenny could make the numbers. The deal was a “confidence and supply” agreement, meaning that Fianna Fáil would support the Government on votes of confidence and (money) supply, in return for guarantees on specific policy areas, and the odd appointment. The deal was for three years. At the time, few reckoned it would last.

Kenny still needed the Independents, and they knew it. Despite much mutual suspicion, the desire of politicians to wield power aligned with their instincts to do a deal. Some viewed it as their best chance of achieving things for their constituents; others were outsiders who longed to see what it was like on the inside.

They all saw the chance that the parliamentary arithmetic afforded them now, and perhaps never would again. Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, John Halligan, Seán Canney, Kevin “Boxer” Moran, Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone took the plunge, and joined the Government. Some of them looked as if they could hardly believe it themselves. Some of them still have that look on occasion.

2016: The year in figures

The novel arrangement was hailed as “new politics”, and its supporters declared it a decisive break with the past, a new way of doing things where the Government would be subject to an empowered parliament, leading to better policies and more transparent politics. In reality, it soon became apparent that backroom deals were just as much a feature of the new politics as they had been of the old.

The Dáil and the Government did operate in a different way, but that wasn’t because the culture of politics had changed; it was because the Government didn’t have a majority in the House. That was, and remains, the biggest fact about Kenny’s second administration.

Matters were slow to settle down, and the mutual incomprehension between some of the Independents and Fine Gael occasionally tripped over into loathing, especially in the case of the new Minister for Transport. Shane Ross was a sufficiently diligent student of past administrations to know the perils that accompanied the status of the smaller group in government. Ross’s solution was to constantly, and often abrasively, assert the Independents’ identity against Fine Gael in Government.

Government breakdowns

The Government was only a few weeks in office when the biggest story of the year for Ireland broke in London. Former UK prime minister David Cameron’s spectacularly reckless gamble had failed: Britain had voted to leave the European Union.

Kenny was already up when his staff rang him early on the morning of June 24th to tell him the news. Within hours, Cameron appeared on the steps of 10 Downing St announcing his intention to resign. In Dublin, politicians rubbed their eyes in disbelief as officials dug out their Brexit contingency dossiers, thanking their lucky stars that they had gone to the bother of compiling them in the first place. It rapidly became clear that the Government had done more thinking about the consequences of a Leave vote than its British counterparts had.

Ireland’s interests were quickly identified and articulated as maintaining the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK, keeping the Border between North and South as invisible as possible and protecting the €1 billion a week in trade between the two countries. Cleverly, Ireland placed these concerns in the context of the transformed relations between the Republic, the North and the British as a result of the peace process.

The sympathy of Brussels might be wispy about the threat to the Irish economy, but the peace process – of which the EU had been a strong financial supporter – was a different matter.

These objectives were wholeheartedly supported by the British Government. But what wasn’t clear – and still isn’t, really – is where they sit on the British order of priorities.

The Common Travel Area is important; but is it more important to London than exercising control over the UK’s borders? The open Border between North and South is important; but is it more important than leaving the single market? The relationship between Ireland and the UK is special; but is it special enough to require special treatment in the UK-EU deal?

Theresa May took the reins in Westminster and recast her government with a strong Brexiteer element. There have been intense contacts at official and diplomatic level. But really, we are no closer to knowing the answers to these questions. That is a cause of severe, behind-closed-doors frustration in Dublin. They are not alone. Most of Europe is expressing their impatience with the British in more explicit terms. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, on meeting May and being warned not to undermine the UK negotiating strategy, complained that in the absence of any information about what the strategy actually was “there’s nothing there that I can see to undermine.” It was a fair enough summary.

Liberal consensus

Donald Trump

Trump’s election will change the world. Indeed, he has already changed it, by altering the way people see the US, and its previous guarantees of free trade and security. All in all, Ireland has been an obvious winner from globalisation and free trade, nimbly pitching itself between America and Europe. If Trump’s America turns its back on the world, Ireland will feel a chill.

Kenny, though, was in like Flynn, securing a conversation with the new president-elect before many major world leaders, including the UK’s prime minister, to the obvious displeasure of the Union Jack-underpants section of British press.

At home, there were howls of outrage at Kenny’s eagerness to high five the Donald, though polls indicated the public backed Kenny’s realpolitik. Being as friendly as possible with whoever is in the Oval Office remains a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy. If Trump pursues even half the policies he floated during the campaign, that long-standing position may well be tested.

International affairs have played a huge part in our politics over the last six months, but it is domestic issues that cause the Government most concern. Housing has been a recurring social and therefore political problem since before the Government took office, and while Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has launched impressive action plans to tackle the shortage and the consequent problem of soaring rents, it is not yet clear whether the measures will achieve their intended outcomes.

Abortion became an issue during the year, with the Government accepting for the first time that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which underpins Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws, may be repealed. There is widespread public support for repeal, but much less clarity on what might replace it. The question is currently being considered by the Citizens’ Assembly, which will report midway through next year.

The economy has remained robust, even if the warning signs are beginning to turn to amber. The Government’s problem is that the healthy exchequer finances have led to a flurry of demands to spend them.

At the head of the queue were gardaí, who threatened an unprecedented – and potentially illegal – strike, a threat which gardaí were clearly prepared to carry out. A late late Labour Court recommendation – of the sort nobody could remember a precedent for – averted the strike, but incensed other public service unions who had maintained the discipline of the Lansdowne Road agreement only to find that others prospered by ignoring it. Public sector pay is now poised to be one of the main political issues of the new year.

It was a livelier year in the Dáil, as the Government found itself regularly defeated on the floor of the House. The power of individual TDs was greatly enhanced, both politically and rhetorically. There is no doubt that the Dáil is more important in our national political debate, but there is little sign that its inhabitants are sure what to do with their new-found power.

Perhaps it says something about the nature of this Government that many of the chief political issues to emerge during the year – abortion, water charges and public sector pay – have all been kicked to touch. A kick into touch is only that, however; sooner or later, someone throws the ball back in.

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