It just might happen

 

Shane Hegarty dons his soothsayer hat

SSIA windfall sparks spending spree

The Government has a nice way of putting it: from May, SSIAs will have "matured". It sounds so calm, so sober. When that cash comes rolling through, a lot of us will be anything but mature about it. The deal that seemed too good to be true (£1 earned for every £4 saved) is finally going to pay out, and the country will get a chance to blow it on holidays, cars, property, house extensions, or an extension to the original extension. Surveys suggest we’re becoming increasingly conservative in our plans, but the builders and yacht salesmen of Ireland are rubbing their hands at the prospect. Will it force prices up, or lead to extra competition? Experience suggests that we shouldn’t get too optimistic about that one. But for 2006, and into 2007, the SSIA will weave its magic. And then there’ll be a general election. That’s purely coincidental, of course.

Ryder Cup circus makes a mint

Forget the competition on the K Club golf course, the big Ryder Cup prizes are to be earned from the circus surrounding it. Locals who rent out their homes for two weeks in September will earn up to €20,000, and there will be fat wallets in the check trouser pockets of fans from both sides. Fáilte Ireland sees the Ryder Cup as a wider opportunity to sell a new image of Ireland to tourists, especially after a period during which golf tourism has been on the slide. "It is a unique opportunity that must be totally exploited," said Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism John O’Donoghue. Too right it will.

Non-national gardaí hit the streets

Since a recruitment drive attracted 900 applicants from the immigrant community, the hopefuls will be going through an interview process, including medicals and aptitude tests, with the possibility that the first successful applicants will enter Templemore as early as March. After 22 weeks of training, they would then be sent to stations as recruit gardaí, recognisable by their blue lapels. So, by the end of 2006 there could be Chinese, Latvian or Nigerian recruits on the beat. How they would be received will be very interesting. Let’s hope it’s with a little more maturity than one tabloid headline about the number of Chinese applicants: Police Wok Welcomed.

The weekly shop gets cheaper

Eddie Hobbs encouraged viewers to send nappies to the Government as a protest against the Groceries Order Bill, and within a short time it had been scrapped. So we’ll be expecting cheaper groceries then. There have been some signs that it will happen, such as Dunnes Stores’ two-for-one deals on milk. Tesco, meanwhile, promises it will be cutting prices "on a broader basis". Ann Fitzgerald, the chairwoman of the new National Consumer Agency, says that it might be a year before we recognise its impact, although analysts have predicted that the cost of a shopping basket might drop only by 3 or 4 per cent anyway, because overall costs still remain high. If you sent one of those nappies, you may yet need to ask Micheál Martin for it back if the prices don’t go down.

Traffic? What traffic?

For commuters who have put up with horrendous disruptions during the construction of several transport projects, they’ll finally get an idea if it has all been worth it. The M4 from Kilcock to Kinnegad has just opened, and next year will see the completion of the Ashbourne, Cavan, Mullingar, Bundoran/Ballyshannon and Monaghan bypasses, the Naas road upgrade, and the Dublin Port Tunnel. Then work will begin on the M50 upgrade, the Waterford bypass, and the Kinnegad to Athlone section of the N6.We’ve been living on a promise of a better future for road users. The new year might give us a taste of that, or drivers might find themselves stuck in a traffic jam for another few years yet.

Irish actor picks up an Oscar

Last year Colin Farrell’s role in Alexander was talked up as an Oscar contender, until people saw the movie. Instead, he was nominated in the Worst Actor category at the anti-Oscars, the Razzies. He’d previously been mooted for his breakthrough role in Tigerland, but missed out. Since then, despite gaining a reputation as a fine actor, sometimes in awful movies, Farrell has had to make do with not-so-prestigious Irish prizes and MTV awards, and fame of a different sort when he recently checked into a rehabilitation centre. This time, he plays 17th-century explorer John Smith, falling for Native American princess Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s epic The NewWorld. However, having been sneaked into some US cinemas before Christmas so that it can be in Oscar contention, reviews have ranged from ecstatic to lukewarm. A better bet may yet be Cillian Murphy, who has already received a Golden Globe nomination for his role as a transvestite in Breakfast On Pluto.

Gordon Brown gets the keys of No 10

There are very few political commentators in Britain who think that he won’t. At one point this year, some suggested that Tony Blair would be gone by Christmas. That hasn’t happened, but since the famed "pact" between the two men, in which Blair is alleged to have promised to stand aside after one term and allow Brown take over, the man in No 11 has been itching to move. However much Blair played down more recent rumours that he would resign halfway through this term, events seem to have overtaken him. He is increasingly unpopular among the electorate and his own party. With David Cameron promising a Tory revival, Labour needs a clear run at the next election. Prime minister Gordon Brown could get that chance.

Government keeps the cash rolling

Now that it looks like there won’t be an early general election called in 2006, the Government will do everything in its power to woo voters before the campaign kicks in during 2007. It has already started, with the recent Budget giving childcare cash, cutting tax cuts for the rich and taking minimum wage workers out of the tax net. Presuming that the Exchequer stays healthy in 2006, Minister for Finance Brian Cowen might be donning a Santa cape and white beard next December, especially given the extra tax revenue that will be generated by a country spending its SSIAs. Cowen has previously said that this Government won’t go for short-term gain for long-term pain, but a bad year canvassing the doorsteps could put that to the test.

Irish sport hits a new low

Irish international sport is not exactly in rude health. The soccer team is absent from the World Cup, and its new manager will inherit a team with serious deficiencies, a lack of leadership and little new talent emerging. The rugby team goes into the Six Nations looking uninspired and one-dimensional, and even if the calls for Eddie O’Sullivan’s head grow louder, his contract takes him to the 2007 World Cup. Meanwhile, this year’s International Rules tests proved a humiliating experience for us, when we were clobbered by Australia in more ways than one. For most sports fans, this could be a year when it might be advisable to hide behind their inflatable shamrocks.

Mortgage rates on the increase

For some time now, we’ve been waiting for the bubble to, if not burst, then at least to slowly deflate. Instead, 2005 saw house prices rise, and at a quicker rate as the year went on. The average price paid by the first-time buyer is now €248,113, and property analysts believe that there’s plenty of life in the market yet. But the raising of interest rates by the European Central Bank – even if it was only by one-quarter of a percentage point from a low level – was welcomed by some as a brake on inflation. Analysts predict a further rate rise, perhaps as early as February, and if there were to be a series of hikes, they could put the skids on the market. But given that rates are so low going into 2006, prospective first-time buyers mightn’t want to get their hopes up just yet.

Tony Soprano gets whacked

It’s been over a year since The Sopranos, considered one of television’s greatest shows, was last on our screens. HBO is currently filming the sixth series of the domestic Mafia drama starring James Gandolfini, and its creator David Chase says it will be the final one. However, he said the same thing about the fifth series. If it is the end, though, it will bring down the curtain on a novelistic, violent and morally complex drama that is likely to influence US drama for years to come. It will air on US television on March 6th. Don’t expect a happy ending.

Irish hang up the telephone

At some point soon a lot of people are going to realise that, if they have an internet connection, a microphone and speaker then their computer will be a far cheaper medium for making calls than the old-fashioned telephone. Programmes such as Skype or Google Talk mean that subscribers can talk to anyone else who has downloaded the programme onto their computer, without any extra cost, and Blueface is offering a specifically Irish service. Calling regular phones through the programme is not free, but is still very cheap. That it is the next best thing to a "free" phone call means it is already beginning to creep into the homes of people fed up with landline costs. The new year will see the pace of change accelerate.

Ukraine lift the World Cup

Soccer tournaments have become increasingly difficult to forecast in recent years. A mediocre Liverpool side won the Champions League in 2005, a year after the unheralded Porto lifted the trophy. Euro 2004, the last major international tournament, was won by Greece, which was so short of stars it started out as 150-1 outsiders. Even though the last World Cup, in 2002, was won byBrazil for the fifth time, the competition had been the most open for some time, and if the trend continues then the 2006 World Cup, in Germany, could yet throw up a surprise. If you get Ukraine in the office sweepstakes, you may allow yourself a wry grin.

George W Bush faces a year of scandal

The US president started 2005 with an inauguration, and it quickly went downhill from there. Iraq is a mess, his handling of Hurricane Katrina was roundly considered his worst moment, and there was the embarrassing climbdown on his Supreme Court nominee. Just to rub it in, he seemed to have succumbed to caricature by being unable to open a door at a Chinese press conference. In 2006, two new Supreme Court judges in place may not necessarily placate the conservative right, while any plans for a phased withdrawal from Iraq will be controversial. Meanwhile, if the trial of I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of outing CIA agent Valerie Plame, begins it will probably drag in vice-president Dick Cheney. Just as happened with Bill Clinton, Bush’s second term could be lived out against a background of scandal and half-truths.

Paying for childcare is child’s play

Nothing kept Brian Cowen’s calculator busier in the run-up to the 2005 Budget than trying to figure out a way of keeping parents happy, whether they were minding the kids at home, had a childminder or brought them to a creche. So everybody got an extra €1,000 a year, a jump in child benefit, extra maternity leave as well as promises of extra childcare places. Parents will start getting the extra cash in the middle of 2006, by which point they’ll be hoping there won’t be a corresponding jump in creche fees. At least the extra payment will come too late for many of those in the demographic famous for using their child benefit to fund their SSIAs.

Social partners fall in love again

The Irish Ferries dispute that tainted the closing months of 2005 could still loom large over 2006. Siptu portrayed this problem as being not just about the actions of one company, but as a turning point in industrial relations. Bertie Ahern pleaded for social partnership to hold together for the sake of the country. Plenty of commentators agreed, saying that Irish Ferries could lead the way in companies opting out of commitments that have helped shape the Irish economy. However, others pointed out that Irish Ferries, as a maritime company, was an isolated case. A compromise was reached, nevertheless, it and the An Post row cast a shadow over the delayed talks on a new social partnership deal. The ramifications will only become clearer in the new year.

Three Irish riders in the Tour de France

It is almost two decades since Ireland’s golden age of cycling, but the coming year’s Tour may see a return of sorts. There’s an outside chance that three Irish could start the race this year, and one of those will be a Roche. Stephen’s son Nicolas is a rider for Cofidis, and may feature. Meanwhile, the AG2R Prévoyance team includes Mark Scanlon (who completed the 2004 tour) and the younger Philip Deignan. The event has been badly tainted by drug scandals since it was brought to Irish roads in 1998. With Lance Armstrong having finally retired, trailing plenty of accusations (he has denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs), this will not only be the most open race in years, but it may remind the Irish how much they used to enjoy the event, or confirm just how much they’ve gone off it. Either way, it should inform them of how healthy Irish cycling currently is.

A shadow falls over Dublin 4

The year 2005 was a busy time in the upmarket Dublin suburb, with the sale of the Berkeley Court and Jurys sites to developer Seán Dunne, and another developer paying more than €170 million for the two acres on which UCD’s veterinary college stands. But now they have to be built upon, and 2006 will see a massive battle between residents and developers over what gets put there. When that’s resolved, the area will become a building site. Add to that the planning process that will vex the residents living in the shadow of Lansdowne Road, and house buyers scanning the estate agent windows may be thinking twice about moving to this desirable location.

Michael McDowell flexes his Asbos muscle

The new Criminal Justice Bill, due to go through in June, will include new laws relating to gun crime, fireworks and electronic tagging. But the big headlines will be made by the anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) that have already caused such controversy and are heralded by some as the answer to unruly teens and neighbours from hell. The Minister for Justice says that he has taken account of criticisms of the British system on which it’s based, but by the end of the year we should get an idea of whether it will make a positive difference or simply criminalise teenagers without tackling the root causes of crime.

Brian Kennedy wins Eurovision

Once a Eurovision-proud nation, humbled by Ukrainian cavewomen and leggy disco-dancing Greeks, Ireland doesn’t seem to have learned its lessons. Instead of a glitzy pop act, we’re sending Brian Kennedy to a competition that still fascinates the Irish public. It will be a success if he gets out of the qualifying competition. In 2005, young Donna and Joe McCaul stepped into the fray, and they left very frayed indeed. Having proven poor judges of talent, the nation will only be allowed decide the song we send to Athens. The hope seems to be that Kennedy can rewind the clock to a now distant era when Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington could wow Europe. It might be just as likely that RTÉ commentator Marty Whelan’s moustache will once again wilt with disappointment.

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