The Irish Times view on Irish politics in 2020: Overshadowed by Covid-19
The coalition leaders showed more competence in dealing with the big issues that faced them in winter, but with the virus still surging, they will undoubtedly face further enormous challenges in the coming year
Irish politics entered a dramatic new phase in 2020 but the political convulsions were put in the shade by the Covid-19 pandemic, which transformed daily life as we know it for most of the year and was responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 people.
The year began with a general election which shattered the party-political system we had become accustomed to for almost a century. Sinn Féin won more of the popular vote than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, with a range of smaller parties and Independents taking the remaining seats.
It was an outcome no one anticipated at the beginning of the election campaign last January. Even Sinn Féin strategists had no idea that they were about to ride a sudden wave of popularity and did not run enough candidates to fully harness the surge.
When the votes were counted it turned out Fianna Fáil had just one more seat than Sinn Féin, with Fine Gael three seats behind. The Greens made a significant breakthrough, winning a record 12 seats, while Labour and the Social Democrats won six each. The remaining 26 seats went to smaller parties and Independents.
With 81 seats required for a majority it was clear that forming a government was going to be a complicated process involving a combination of more than two parties. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald set about putting together an alliance with the smaller left-wing parties but it soon became clear that she would have nowhere near the numbers required and it was even doubtful if some of the left-wing TDs were really interested.
There was considerable pressure on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to consider a coalition deal with Sinn Féin, but he refused to engage, telling the first meeting of the new Dáil in March: “We do not believe that Sinn Féin operates to the same democratic standards held by every other party in this House”.
The focus then turned to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who began a long drawn-out process of engaging in serious talks about government formation. However, politics soon took second place to more serious issues as the country was faced with the threat posed by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the globe.
The task of dealing with its arrival in Ireland fell to Leo Varadkar and the outgoing Fine Gael-led government, which remained in office until the Dáil could come up with a new administration. Varadkar announced a national lockdown while on the annual St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington and followed it up with a televised address which provided reassurance to a worried nation.
A raft of measures to support individuals and businesses hit by the lockdown played a crucial part in that process.
The combination of Covid-19 and political manoeuvring meant that talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael proceeded at a snail’s pace but they eventually resulted in the two parties agreeing to a joint framework document on April 15th, which was designed to entice another party or parties to join them in Government. Labour and the Social Democrats refused to engage but the Greens responded positively, seizing the chance to move the country to a green agenda.
After long and tortuous negotiations, a programme for government was announced on June 15th. The rotation of the Taoiseach’s office between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was a key element of the deal and on June 27th, 140 days after the election, Micheál Martin was elected Taoiseach. The decision marked the end of civil war politics and the beginning of a new era.
Sense of disarray
The Covid restrictions were gradually eased with the arrival of summer but the new Taoiseach endured a series of setbacks as his Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen was forced to step down within days of taking office.
The departure of Dara Calleary and the forced resignation of Phil Hogan as European Trade Commissioner in August after their attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden compounded the sense of disarray.
In spite of those early setbacks the new government gradually settled down. Minister for Education Norma Foley dealt well with the cancellation of the Leaving Certificate exams and the Government acted decisively to ensure schools reopened in the autumn.
It also responded well to the Covid resurgence as it imposed new restrictions in a way designed to minimise the social and economic damage to society despite pressure from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) for more draconian measures.
As if Covid was not enough of a challenge, Brexit emerged once again in the final weeks of the year as a serious threat to the country’s future.
Having weathered the political pitfalls of summer, the coalition leaders showed more competence in dealing with the big issues that faced them in winter, but with the virus still surging, they will undoubtedly face further enormous challenges in the coming year.