Miriam Lord’s 2017: Step back and take in a year on the brink
Martin marched his party up and down hills, Kenny departed, Varadkar got the top job
Justice swamp: former minister Frances Fitzgerald with former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The political landscape is a wondrous thing. We’d be lost without it. The political landscape is imaginary, yet it is mapped and remapped, forever explored. It has seismic shifts and regular eruptions, dips and peaks and it trips you up. It has corners, which some people claim they can see around. There are rifts – some permanent and others temporary. Gaping chasms open and close. And there are swamps to trap the unwary. Crisis threatens on a regular basis, sparking bedlam, usually for about a week. Then it stops, everything settles, everyone forgets. Until the next upheaval.
The world almost ended on at least three occasions in 2017.
Justice, the biggest swamp of them all, swallowed up the then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in November and brought the governments of two taoisigh “to the brink” as the Garda whistleblower controversy sporadically erupted.
In the first half of the year a yawning abyss opened between Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen over the issue of water charges. They went head to head over the report of the water committee. Cowen dug his heels in and threatened an end to Fianna Fáil’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the government if Coveney refused to accept the committee’s findings. The Minister said such a move would breach European law. He wasn’t moving either.
This episode happened at the most significant location in the political landscape this year – Micheál Martin Mountain. Like in the old song, Fianna Fáil were the Folks Who Live on the Hill as their leader repeatedly marched them up it, let his lieutenants loose to do some grandstanding and then led them all back down again.
In the water row, the two sides eventually reached an accommodation, Fianna Fáil slid back down and an election was averted.
Back at the Justice swamp, Enda Kenny was still taoiseach when a fresh batch of calls began for the resignation of the garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan. In fact, most of 2017 was punctuated by calls for her to quit, or for the Government to remove her, as controversy upon controversy hit An Garda Síochána. Fake breath tests and strange accounting practices at the Garda training college in Templemore were added to the litany of complaints over the treatment of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.
Enda and his minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald, endured a torrid time when ensnared in the latest twist in the tale of alleged attempts by the top brass to smear Sgt McCabe. Enda had to apologise for detailing a conversation he said he had with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone on the subject. Unfortunately, the conversation only happened in his head.
As the commissioner and the Department of Justice lurched from one catastrophe to another, Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan declared his party no longer had confidence in O’Sullivan. What was the Government going to do? Nothing, as it turned out.
Fianna Fáil did its headless chicken thing up and around the hill. There was talk of an election if action was not forthcoming on the Nóirín front. After a suitable time on the brink, staring into the chasm, Micheál and his men came back down the hill.
Leo Varadkar was only Taoiseach for a few months when he was nearly dragged into the Justice swamp. (Nóirín O’Sullivan resigned in September, having had enough.) This time it was about emails sent to the then minister for justice, which she failed to act upon.
Micheál mustered his troops again and struck out for the summit. Frances Fitzgerald would have to go. Fianna Fáilers feared the worst when Taoiseach Varadkar signalled he was prepared to risk a general election rather than sacrifice tánaiste Fitzgerald.
An election before Christmas? Nobody wanted such a seismic shift during the festive season. Micheál would be blamed if it were to happen. Then fresh emails emerged, weakening Varadkar’s and Fitzgerald’s position.
When she finally resigned, the Fianna Fáil leader, at the top of the hill, was able to stand back for once and enjoy the view.
The Citizens’ Assembly spent a lot of time listening and questioning before deciding what to recommend on abortion. So perhaps its radical proposal should not have come as such a surprise
The tectonic plates were shifting in other areas too. The Citizens’ Assembly tasked with examining the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution met at weekends between February and April. It issued a surprising report recommending abortion be available to women in a wide variety of circumstances and unrestricted up to 12 weeks.
While popular – and the political opinion might have expected more conservative findings from the group – a closer examination of how the assembly conducted its deliberations provides a telling indication to why it reached this decision.
Members met in a calm, non-judgmental, non-adversarial environment. There were no politicians in the group.
They heard presentations from medical and professional experts who delivered papers which they could discuss, then take away and consider. They found out how other countries deal with this difficult issue. They heard personal testimonies from women who have had abortions, and from women who chose not to end their pregnancies despite receiving devastating diagnoses. The citizens spent a lot of time listening and questioning before deciding.
So perhaps when they proposed a radical change of the abortion laws, it should not have come as such a surprise.
The assembly’s findings were then handed to a 22-member committee of the Oireachtas to make a recommendation to Government. Chaired by Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, in December it produced a groundbreaking 16-page report recommending the repeal of the Eighth Amendment (which equates the right to life of a woman with the unborn in her womb) and abortions in most cases up to 12 weeks.
Not all members agreed. Three of them – independent Senator Ronán Mullen, Independent TD Mattie McGrath and Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick profoundly disagreed with the findings and complained from the beginning that it was an exercise in bias.
Others, such as Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan, Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte and Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien said their membership of the committee made them shift from their resolutely anti-abortion views.
The Taoiseach says he would like to see a referendum on repealing the Eighth in May.
The year began with Enda Kenny as taoiseach. But even then, he was only marking time. A poor showing in the previous year’s general election meant he was not long for Government Buildings and would be gone once he passed his personal milestone of becoming Fine Gael’s longest-serving taoiseach.
That early dunking in the Justice swamp put paid to any hopes that he might be kept on, so he threw himself into planning Ireland’s Brexit policy and criss-crossed the continent building contacts in advance of the official opening of EU negotiations with the UK.
All the while, Varadkar and Coveney were planning for the accession. Leaks from both camps came with increasing frequency.
The departure of the successful Enda Kenny would be a seismic event for Fine Gael, as would be the replacement of a taoiseach mid-Government. Enda told them he would step down sometime after St Patrick’s Day and his visit to Donald Trump in the US.
So the party could see the landscape a little more clearly in the distance.
No such thing in the Phoenix Park, where Michael D Higgins appears to have no intention of changing the presidential landscape and if any contenders are interested in his job, they will have to move a few mountains to get past him.
RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke asked him about his intentions at the Ploughing Championships in September.
“My concentration is on doing this term very well and that’s why I don’t answer the question now because my concentration is on doing the job I’m doing and I’m getting great support from the Irish public in it. And then, in the fullness of time, and it’s just my decision – it doesn’t affect anyone else’s, eh, but I have, and, in just being dead straight about it, I haven’t ruled anything out and therefore by the time of the Ploughing next year when the numbers will be up again and, eh, and I . . .”
Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell is no stranger to a long-worded sentence. Craughwell is a determined individual, who got into the Seanad in 2014 after Fine Gael’s shoo-in candidate for a vacant seat had to withdraw in controversial circumstances. He is set to run against Michael D if nobody else declares. And if he throws his hat in the ring, then Fianna Fáil might feel inclined to put somebody up too. Broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan is being talked about as a possible candidate.
In May, Enda stepped down. He managed his departure, right down to the tweet which went out at the exact moment he informed his colleagues, depriving any leakers of gaining glory from the occasion.
And so the landscape began to change again. Observers pored over the twists and turns and wondered what it would be like in a post-Enda age. The leadership campaign was over as soon as it began, with Varadkar stunning rival Coveney in the opening days by producing a near-unassailable number of supporters in the Fine Gael parliamentary party.
Coveney, who would eventually become Tánaiste following the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald, performed well on the hustings and won a majority of grassroot votes, but with the vote weighted heavily in favour of the parliamentary party, Varadkar was elected.
It was a highly emotional evening on that Friday, June 2nd in Dublin’s Mansion House. Ireland’s incoming Taoiseach Varadkar, a gay man in this 30s with an Irish mother and an Indian father, made headlines around the world. In an inspirational speech, he first used the phrase: “Republic of opportunity”.
That phrase is now Fine Gael’s slogan.
Part of the Varadkar plan back then too? If so, that’s impressive.
Enda left a banana skin behind with his appointment of attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal. The new Taoiseach persevered with it, high-tailing to the President early in the morning to formally confirm it.
This made for a rocky start and another foray up the hill for Micheál Martin and Jim O’Callaghan, but Leo’s new government survived.
And still the landscape buckled and crumpled and reshaped. Gerry Adams announced he is to stand down as president of Sinn Féin early next year. Seismic for the Shinners, but no huge surprise, judging by Varadkar’s immediate targeting in the Dáil of Gerry’s likely successor, Mary Lou McDonald.
It’s far too early to judge the Taoiseach. He and we are still getting the lie of the land – which is already very different, but in some ways, very promising.
Leo’s selfies and the self-promotion on social media can be tiresome, and the cheesy photo opportunities and gymwear shots could be toned down, but what harm? And so what if Leo swaps socks with Justin Trudeau or makes a joke about Love Actually in Downing Street?
His government faces huge challenges – not least the chronic housing shortage and Brexit – but there is a sense that Varadkar wants to solve problems and get things done. He has formed a good alliance with his former rival Coveney and they come across as a good team on the international Brexit front.
The Vabinet is peppered with youthful, dynamic Ministers among the veterans.
Leo is of his generation, this generation. He is intelligent, direct, outward looking, a thinker (of ideological thought not to everyone’s liking) and a man in a hurry.
Now is his time, his chance to make his mark on the political landscape.