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Beyond Covid-19: What are the other challenges facing Government in 2021?

Brexit, Ceta and housing will all require Coalition’s careful attention in the coming months

The new year began the way the old one finished – with the Government scrambling to deal with a tsunami of Covid-19 cases as the third wave washes over a shocked country.

As Brexit beds down following the 11th hour deal before Christmas, the pandemic will dominate politics for the early part of the year. How it manages the third wave now and how effectively it rolls out the vaccination programme will decide much about this Government’s long-term fate.

Just before Christmas, the Coalition compared its performance managing the pandemic favourably with comparable and neighbouring countries, pointing to the lowest infection rates in Europe. Now it has the highest. As it has done elsewhere, hubris on Covid-19 inevitably leads to nemesis. The Government no longer looks like it is managing the situation effectively, but rather reacting – belatedly – to an out-of-control pandemic.

The Government and the country are at a stage of acute danger, with hospital capacity stretched to breaking point. The lockdown may continue into February.


However, the rollout of the various vaccines should accelerate throughout the first half of the year. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of vaccine delivery for the Government. It will be the most important thing the Coalition does in 2021.

But hard and all as it is to see it now, the advent of the vaccine means that Covid-19 will eventually cease to be the only thing on the political agenda.

There will also be several other key political issues that will arise throughout the year, and will, after the pandemic recedes and Brexit settles down into a new relationship between the UK and the EU, have a vital bearing on the ultimate success or failure of the Government and the course of our politics.

Even with a deal on Brexit, some degree of trade disruption appears inevitable. Though the catastrophe of a full-scale no-deal Brexit has been avoided, in which the Irish agrifood industry would have faced immediate tariffs, some businesses will face significant difficulties. The fishing industry is likely to shrink; Government is already in talks about the price for that.

But the administration will have to do other things too. The Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman will shortly publish the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission. It will be another in a series of painful episodes in which Ireland has been brought face to face with some uncomfortable truths about its past.

Serious unrest

Soon afterwards, the Green Party will face some questions about its immediate future, when it must decide on its stance on Ceta, the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada.

The deal has been in operation provisionally since 2017, but many Green members, and at least some of its TDs, have indicated their opposition to ratifying it.

Green ministers have indicated their intention to press ahead with ratification, and it is most unlikely that the Government will change its mind on this. But it could trigger serious unrest in the Greens, as those sceptical about participation in the Coalition in the first place are confronted again with the compromises necessary to make it work.

Party leader Eamon Ryan and his ministerial colleagues will need to demonstrate progress on the party’s key goals – tackling climate change, protecting biodiversity and the transition to a less carbon-intensive economy – to keep his party together. That remains a work in progress, at best.

The Government is committed to achieving an annual 7 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and Green members will want to see concrete progress towards this goal. 2021 is certain to see further internal party strains. That is what happens to a small party in coalition governments. However, Ryan’s occasionally bumbling approach belies his ability to make acute political computations; witness his careful manoeuvring of his party into Government in the first place. But it’s not going to get any easier for him.

Internal tensions will be part of the year for Fianna Fáil, too. While Micheál Martin has always had to deal with the restive, the malcontented and the occasionally seditious in his parliamentary party, they have never been so numerous, nor so motivated.

Part of Martin’s security has been that even his most bitter critics realised that the party did not have an obvious alternative leader. Since the general election, the Dublin TD Jim O’Callaghan has moved towards occupying that role. If those unhappy with Martin’s leadership coalesce around O’Callaghan – and there are signs that this is happening – that will be a new dynamic in the game. Martin’s strength among the party membership – rather than TDs – will remain a factor, though.

More pressing for the Taoiseach will be to achieve progress for the Government on the issues that were central to the last general election campaign – health, housing, public services. The health and housing departments are under the control of Fianna Fáil ministers and those areas will once again be uppermost in the public’s mind when the pandemic becomes a less pressing problem in the second half of the year – however remote a prospect that seems now – and for the rest of the Government’s term of office.

At present, we are still in the building blocks phase – but Martin and his Fianna Fáil ministers will have to show some concrete progress in these areas this time next year. Remember, around the middle of next September, as the administration cranks up to deliver its second budget, Martin will pass the halfway mark in his premiership.

In that budget, the Government will also have to begin tackling one of its trickiest and more politically fraught tasks – the reduction of pandemic-related spending, and the borrowing that has facilitated it, and the transition towards something more normal. As economic activity collapsed earlier this year and hundreds of thousands of people found themselves at least temporarily unemployed, the State stepped in an pumped more than €20 billion into the economy through subsidies and supports for business, State agencies and workers.

Spending choices

That won’t keep going forever and Government insiders know that the process of unwinding the special supports will need to begin in 2021.

Inevitably, the Coalition will be accused by its opponents of beginning a new age of austerity. It will be difficult to resist the narrative. Ministers and officials are hopeful that the rapid economic bounceback predicted by some economists will materialise once the vaccination is widely distributed, to replace the borrowed billions.

But the necessity for difficult budgetary and spending choices will be a part of the Government’s life next year, in a way they weren’t this year. That may test the Government’s strongest cross-party relationship, that between the Fine Gael Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and the Fianna Fáil Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath.

For Sinn Féin, currently the most popular party in the country according to the polls, 2021 will be an important stage as it seeks to present itself as a government-in-waiting.

The party is very good at opposition – though the Government often seems determined to give its opponents plenty of help – and has successfully developed its simple message of “change” at the general election to an opposition critique based around the left populist narrative of “establishment elite versus ordinary people”.

But to take power as the anchor of a new coalition, whether overtly left-wing or left-centre, it will need to convince more voters that it is ready for government. It will be fascinating to watch the once-revolutionary party undertake this next step in its evolution.