Political tumult – old and new
A year of upheaval
It was a tumultuous year in political terms, involving a crumbling of Fine Gael control and the near-destruction of the Labour Party in a general election outcome that few had anticipated. The resulting minority Fine Gael-led Government, established on the basis of a “confidence and supply” arrangement with Fianna Fáil, offered a new form of parliamentary politics. But as time passed, traditional attitudes and practices, along with an unwillingness to take unpopular decisions, emerged.
Economic and political upheaval caused by the February election was magnified in June by an unexpected UK vote in favour of Brexit and, later, through the election of Donald Trump in the United States. By the end of the year, slowing domestic growth, a drift towards international protectionism and an EU focus on tax avoidance by multinational corporations provided an uncertain backdrop. A housing and homeless crisis threatened social stability and inward investment while industrial unrest involving gardaí, transport and public service workers undermined the Lansdowne Road agreement.
As the largest Dáil party, Fine Gael attempted to pressurise Fianna Fáil into a coalition arrangement following the election. But, having ruled out such a development in pre-election skirmishing, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin would have none of it. He promoted the issue of water charges as an insurmountable obstacle to any deal with Fine Gael while, at the same time, protecting his flank against an assault by Sinn Féin.
Following 10 weeks of haphazard negotiations, Enda Kenny became the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected as Taoiseach. He did so with the support of Independent TDs and the acquiescence of Fianna Fáil and went on to appoint the largest-ever number of Fine Gael ministers. The nature of the confidence and supply arrangement, however, allowed Fianna Fáil to adopt the roles of policy coordinator and critic. With this advantage and some clever footwork, it has overtaken Fine Gael as the most popular political party.
At the close of 2015, Fianna Fáil trailed Fine Gael and Sinn Féin in the opinion polls. But a well-fought election campaign, unexpected gains and tactically-astute negotiations transformed its prospects and embedded Mr Martin as unchallenged party leader. Joan Burton resigned as Labour Party leader – to be replaced by Brendan Howlin – following a disastrous election that cost the party 30 seats. And there has been a slow build-up of pressure on both Enda Kenny and Gerry Adams to provide dates for their retirement.
It has become clear that while Mr Adams represents a significant asset among traditional Sinn Féin supporters, “legacy issues” involving a defence of Provisional IRA-related activities and the party’s response to cases of sexual abuse have limited the party’s appeal. During the election campaign, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael targeted the Sinn Féin leader on the basis of his support for Thomas “Slab” Murphy and his commitment to abolish the Special Criminal Court. Mr Martin insisted the party was “unfit for government”. Support dribbled away. Sinn Féin increased its representation to 23 seats but the result fell short of its expectations. Public controversy over Mr Adams’s unwillingness to cooperate fully with Garda investigations has been re-ignited in recent weeks by Mr Martin and Mr Kenny in relation to the IRA murder of Brian Stack.
The autumn budget provided a defining moment for the Government and for Fianna Fáil. In a cooperative effort to ensure that “the centre will hold” against encroachment by Sinn Féin and radical left-wing parties, cautionary spending limits were exceeded and all interest groups got something. The concessions left a very bare exchequer cupboard but the two main parties were encouraged by a nine-point growth in their combined support during the year that came at the expense of Sinn Féin, Independents and Others. The corollary meant no provision had been made for additional pay increases under the Lansdowne Road agreement or when gardaí came calling.
A shortage of housing and strict mortgage limits imposed by the Central Bank drove rents beyond boom-time levels in many areas, while budgetary concessions for first-time buyers had little impact, other than to increase prices. Construction activity accelerated but the Government still found it necessary to impose a cap on overheating rents in Dublin and in Cork. That exercise generated friction between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that may yet have consequences.
As the year drew to a close, the water charges issue remained unresolved and the Northern Ireland Executive was, once again, in crisis. First Minister Arlene Foster was being asked to stand aside by Sinn Féin pending an independent inquiry into her handing of a so-called “cash for ash” controversy, likely to cost the Northern exchequer in excess of €400million. She lost a vote of confidence in the Assembly, but with the DUP leadership supporting her against both internal and external critics, efforts to resolve the situation have been deferred. It will not be easy.