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Irish politics in 2020: An earthquake election, an unlikely marriage, a scandalous dinner

2020 in review: A momentous year in politics will keep the historians of the future busy

It was a year of big events at home and abroad, sure to keep the historians of the future busy; they won’t skip over 2020. There was an earthquake election, a great shift in the Irish political landscape, a global pandemic, the triumph over Trump, and at its end, Brexit.

The year began in a slow-motion countdown to a general election. Billed in advance as a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil shootout, the election campaign was instead about Sinn Féin. To its own surprise as much as anyone else's, the party surfed the wave of the public's desire for "change".

When the results rolled in, Sinn Féin had won the greatest share of the popular vote (24.5 per cent), but came in second to Fianna Fáil in Dáil seats. Fine Gael had its second dreadful election in a row. The other story of the election was the Green Party, which recorded its best result ever by far, winning 12 seats. The new Dáil met on February 20th, but all nominees for taoiseach were defeated.

The path to a new government would be a lengthy one. The arithmetic was simple enough: two of the big three parties needed to come together with a smaller party or group of TDs.

There was hot talk about a left-led government anchored by Sinn Féin and comprising TDs from Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit and some left-wing Independents, but anyone able to count could see the numbers for a Dáil majority for such a combination weren't there.

Eventually, the tyranny of the numbers had its way, as it always does. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil was prepared to abandon its pre-election promise not to enter government with Sinn Féin, which meat that if a majority government was to be formed, these two parties would have to come together.

Leo Varadkar played hard to get – at least in public – for a long time, but in the end he did what he was always going to do. The Green Party was the most obvious partner, and so it came to pass. But before any negotiations on a new government could begin, a new, frightening scenario materialised.

First slowly, then quickly, the pandemic spread. Varadkar’s government – by now a caretaker administration, awaiting a replacement but without an immediate expectation of one – looked at the scenes in northern Italy, where hospitals were overwhelmed and the military was called in to collect dead bodies, and resolved that avoiding a repeat of that in Ireland was its overriding priority.

By late February, events were accelerating. On the last day of the month – the 29th, 2020 being a leap year – the first case was detected in the Republic. The country was introduced to Dr Tony Holohan.

On March 12th, the taoiseach, speaking from Washington, announced that all schools would close until the end of the month and people should work from home. People would get sick, he said, and some would die. Nothing could avert that; the government’s job was to keep the numbers as low as possible. One estimate suggested that almost two million people could be infected.

To nobody’s surprise, the lockdown was later extended, repeatedly.

Meanwhile, government formation slowed to a crawl. Eventually, by mid-June they were ready to announce an agreed programme for government. After a tense debate, the Green Party overwhelmingly approved the document. The Government was formed on June 27th, approved by a Dáil majority of 93 votes to 63.

Uproar

Ministers were no sooner appointed than there was uproar in Fianna Fáil from those who were omitted, with deputy leader Dara Calleary the most notable omission from a full Cabinet role, though he was made Government chief whip.

By the time the Government was formed, the lockdown was over. The draconian restrictions had worked – the case numbers had tumbled.

But there was a fearsome economic cost. State spending exploded, while tax receipts plummeted as economic activity seized up. It would eventually cost the State an extra €20 billion this year, adding somewhere around a quarter to the annual cost of running the State. As June turned into July, and July into August, the country enjoyed if not a normal summer, then at least a reminder of what normality could be.

The new Government, meanwhile, was not enjoying itself at all. It wasn’t a month in office when Micheál Martin sacked Barry Cowen, who had an old drink-driving conviction unearthed by the media and declined to come into the Dáil to make a statement about aspects of the case.

As September turned into October, and the numbers continued to rise, concern became alarm

A few weeks later, another minister for agriculture was gone. The Irish Examiner broke a story about the Oireachtas Golf Society's annual dinner in Clifden, taking place in apparent violation of Covid restrictions. By the following morning, Dara Calleary, who had replaced Cowen, had resigned.

The event would later claim an even higher profile scalp, when European Commissioner Phil Hogan was forced to resign and the fallout from the golf dinner would go on to cause an acute crisis in the State's highest court because of the attendance of its newest judge, the former Fine Gael attorney general Séamus Woulfe.

That episode would go on to have a thundering encore in the autumn. All told, the summer – with its constant focus on personnel in Government and beyond - demonstrated how important – and corrosive – jobs for the boys and girls are in Irish political culture.

But the summer had also seen an abrupt reversal of the seemingly inexorable fall in the number of infections. The numbers rose steadily throughout August and into September, even as the schools – to the relief of parents all over the country – reopened for the first time since March.

As September turned into October, and the numbers continued to rise, concern became alarm. Behind the scenes tensions and disagreements between the Government and its public health experts emerged into the open when Dr Tony Holohan returned early from leave and immediately sought a return to lockdown conditions.

The Government refused, though it tightened restrictions. Two weeks later, however, with numbers still on the rise and Holohan telling Ministers that if they didn’t move now they would be forced to in a few weeks anyway – and from a much worse position – the Government relented, and Ireland entered its second lockdown in order to control the second wave of the virus.

It was different from the first one. The schools remained open, and while many people continued to work from home, many did not. Hospitals continued to function. Normal life did not come to the same standstill as it had in the spring.

The measures were equally successful at containing the spread of the virus though in fact, the decline in cases had started before the strictest lockdown was introduced. The six-week lockdown ended at the start of December – in time for, the Taoiseach said – “a meaningful Christmas”. He didn’t quite spell out what that was. A day after the big event, many of us are still figuring it out.

The final phase of the year saw the victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election – a process watched keenly by the whole world, because the whole world rightly felt it had a stake in the outcome.

As Biden prepared to enter the White House, the UK prepared to leave the EU’s legal orbit, as the transition period comes to an end.

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