Political horizon: What are the main issues for this year?

Switch of taoiseach, reshuffling roles, Covid crisis, trade deal and abortion law loom large

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is set to hand over the political reins to Leo Varadkar at the end of 2022. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is set to hand over the political reins to Leo Varadkar at the end of 2022. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

As the Dáil returns on Wednesday after its Christmas recess, the Covid-19 pandemic is not the only issue on the agenda. Here are five political questions for 2022:

What happens with the changeover of taoiseach?

For the first time in the State’s history, the office of taoiseach is due to be rotated later this year between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

On December 15th, Micheál Martin is due to hand over the reins to Leo Varadkar, who will then propose his government – at least, that’s the plan.

Complicating matters is the Garda investigation into the leaking of a confidential GP contract by Varadkar to his friend Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail. Many in Fine Gael are anxious about the fact that the investigation is ongoing, even if few expect it to end in a criminal prosecution.

Then there is the not-insignificant issue of Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil. Even before the start of his term as taoiseach there were whisperings in the party of unhappiness with his leadership and talk of a potential heave.

Could this be the year that this simmering tension finally comes to boil? It seems unlikely for the moment, but nothing is certain in politics.

Who might lose out in the reshuffle that ensues?

Sources who attended a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting before Christmas said that Varadkar delivered a thinly veiled threat: pull up your socks, or else, because changes are coming.

But who would Varadkar drop from his own stable? Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has had an uneasy time in recent months between the abandoned appointment of Katherine Zappone as special envoy and the champagne party that officials in his department held when Ireland won a seat on the UN Security Council.

However, few believe that Varadkar would drop Coveney and his understanding and experience around Brexit, when the issue is still looming at the top of the agenda in Ireland, the UK and the EU.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is increasingly seen as a potential Fine Gael leadership contender, but she has been a steady hand in her role and is understood to have Varadkar’s confidence and support.

Then there is Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, who is another sure-fire leadership candidate. He won praise for his time in the Department of Health during the fraught early stages of the pandemic and is one of the best communicators the Government has. Dropping him from the Cabinet would surely give him that bit of extra time to mull over potential future plans.

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys has taken charge of the various pandemic welfare schemes and then took on McEntee’s portfolio when she took maternity leave. Those who worked with her during this time say she handled the workload ably.

This leaves Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. It is an unwritten rule that the same party should not hold the taoiseach’s office and finance ministry in a coalition government, so he is likely to move out of this portfolio but almost certainly into another.

Whatever way it is viewed, any major changes would mean a high-profile demotion and rocky waters are the last thing Varadkar needs at the start of his premiership – Martin learned this the hard way during his first few weeks at the helm. As for the Fianna Fáil Ministers, it will be interesting to see who has the health and housing jobs when Christmas comes around.

Will Covid-19 lose its grip?

The full-blown anxiety about the Omicron variant over the Christmas has given way to a cautious, but growing, optimism. Only a fool would predict the end of Covid-19 will come this year, but the great hope is that it moves from pandemic to endemic status.

There is much working in our favour. First, with hundreds of thousands potentially contracting the disease every week, according to estimates from public health, a significant degree of natural immunity must be building up.

Ireland also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. And the current strain is evidently less severe than those that have come before. A number of anti-viral drugs may become available this year, and the expectation is that vaccines can be tweaked in future.

Some of the major pandemic business support schemes are due to expire this spring and it looks as though many of the remaining partial restrictions will be lifted next month. If the pandemic recedes, we will see more “politics as usual” and hear more about things like the housing crisis, health waiting lists and the increasing cost of living.

Sinn Féin will attempt to capitalise on its position in the polls and will up the ante on the big-ticket items as they move closer to what could be the most important election for the party in a long time.

Will the Ceta deal pass without any political casualties?

Varadkar has said that any failure to ratify the EU-Canada trade deal (Ceta) would be an “own goal” for Ireland and would send out the “wrong message”. But it could have far greater ramifications beyond messaging.

The High Court last September dismissed a challenge by Green Party TD Patrick Costello over the constitutionality of aspects of the deal. But it is known that there is ongoing tension over the deal among Green Party members, with critics saying the investor/court dispute system remains problematic.

In a recent interview with RTÉ, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said there would be consequences for any party TD who did not vote in line with any Government plan to ratify the deal this year. A date for such a vote has not yet been set, but it will put the focus back onto the role of the Greens in government.

Will the abortion law change?

One of the biggest social changes in recent years came about after the landslide referendum result in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment in 2018. Abortion then became available up to 12 weeks’ gestation in January 2019. Beyond that, terminations are legal in cases where there is a risk to the life or health of the woman, or where there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Under the legislation passed by the Oireachtas, a review of the operation of the law must be initiated within three years. A public consultation is under way and an independent chairperson to lead the review will likely be in place by the end of January.

The chair will submit a review and recommendations to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in the summer or autumn, and these will then be brought to the Cabinet. It is likely that Donnelly will try to find a consensus approach before making any changes, and this will involve seeking the views of an Oireachtas committee and the wider Oireachtas membership.

Government sources have acknowledged that this is likely to kick-start a debate on abortion, the likes of which has not been seen since around the time of the referendum.

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