Politics in 2017: A year of living dangerously

Are we heading back towards slippery slopes last visited in 2006?

The political landscape shifted towards the end of the year. First, in favour of Fianna Fáil, when Leo Varadkar appeared ready to cause a general election rather than seek the resignation of then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. But public opinion swung back when the Taoiseach invoked European Union support and challenged the British government by opposing a hard border between North and South.

From a position where support for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had differed by a handful of points for much of the year, December saw Fine Gael draw dramatically ahead. It may not last, but party members basked in the prospect of maintaining an ascendancy over Fianna Fáil. For Micheál Martin, it was an unwelcome setback as he rebuilt the party and warned against sharing power with Sinn Féin.

On that issue, both leaders were in agreement. Sinn Féin represented a common enemy and the political centre had to hold. For months, Varadkar had berated Sinn Féin for not representing their Northern constituents through a Northern Ireland Executive and because of their abstentionist policy at Westminster. Then he and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney dispensed with diplomatic niceties and emphasised the economic damage a hard border would do to both communities in the North and to businesses in the South. They followed up by extracting undertakings from Theresa May that dismayed the DUP and caused devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales to seek similar treatment. Verbal fudges followed.

Generational change

With the death of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin lost political momentum in the North. The decision to collapse the Executive and Assembly because of what was presented as DUP unwillingness to grant nationalists respect and parity of esteem developed into a sterile standoff.

Both sides protested their anxiety to do a deal while refusing to make compromises. Michelle O’Neill took over as Sinn Féin leader in the North, with Adams at her side, while in the South Mary Lou McDonald prepared to become party president. This generational change was designed to present Southern voters with a new-look party and candidates with no historical baggage at election time. Policy on participation in government was changed. Sinn Féin will now join as a junior partner if government policies are acceptable. The offer of a coalition arrangement did not impress Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

By year’s end, the big beasts of Irish politics accounted for 61 per cent of popular support, up 11 points from the last general election. As water charge cheques dropped through letterboxes across the State, support for left-wing parties that had campaigned most vociferously against water charges was either static or falling. Memories of popular support for Independents at 30 per cent appeared fanciful as the economy recovered and employment grew.

Law and order

A return to traditional political alignments could not disguise the Government’s failure to deliver on its promises to deal with a housing shortage that was driving up prices and rents and increasing the number of homeless families. Once again, builders and developers seemed to be in control as they influenced the size and quality of new apartments and were largely depended upon to provide social housing.

Fine Gael had a terrible year on the law and order front. Administrative abuses exposed by Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe – and management's responses to them – caused Nóirín O Sullivan to retire as Garda Commissioner; forced the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald; hastened the departure of secretary general of the Department of Justice Noel Waters and almost brought down the Government.

It hasn't stopped there. The Charleton Commission continues to investigate the treatment of Sgt McCabe. Acting Garda Commissioner Dónal Ó Cualáin declined to take disciplinary action against senior officers who ignored directions to investigate inflated breath test figures. Policing Authority chairwoman Josephine Feehily was ordered to recruit a new Garda Commissioner, with the specific duty of implementing strategic reforms, in advance of a major review of policing. A new Commissioner cannot, single-handedly, bring about the cultural changes required. Additional like-minded reformers from outside the force will be needed, along with the departure of a swathe of serving officers. It should have happened years ago.

The Government continued to struggle, without obvious effect, to get value for money within a highly stratified, two-tier health system. The uncertain impact of Brexit complicated Paschal Donohoe’s spending arithmetic, even as growth rates accelerated. Experts spoke of a possible need to control public consumption, by increasing taxes, to prevent the economy overheating. Politicians, facing an election, are unlikely to do that.

Are we heading back towards slippery slopes last visited in 2006?