The Irish Times view on the year in politics: what could go wrong?
Little progress was made in meeting the State’s major challenges: building homes for a growing population and providing an efficient and affordable health service
Competition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the accolade of being the most responsible political party intensified in December as Theresa May struggled to secure a ‘soft’ Brexit at Westminster. Micheál Martin agreed to prop up Leo Varadkar’s minority Government for a further year and contrasted political chaos in London to rational behaviour in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The prospect of a hard Brexit and falling economic growth has generated Government plans to protect Irish consumers and producers from shortages and difficulties arising from the shipment of food, medicines and other goods. The bleak scenario makes for scary reading. If handled badly, the effects could bring political change.
Competition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the accolade of being the most responsible political party intensified in December as Theresa May struggled to secure a soft Brexit at Westminster. Micheál Martin agreed to prop up Leo Varadkar’s minority Government for a further year and contrasted political chaos in London to rational behaviour in Dublin. His decision was, of course, in the “national interest”.
Internal critics complained Fianna Fáil was being made irrelevant. Demanding confrontation, they acknowledged Fine Gael’s continuing dominance. More to the point, they recognised that Martin had to delay an election if he hoped to become taoiseach. That had implications for their political ambitions.
Varadkar was facing his own demons. Fine Gael’s advantage over Fianna Fáil had been fashioned late in 2017, when the Taoiseach presented himself as a defender of Northern nationalists. His rejection of a hard border, because of the Belfast Agreement and the damage it would inflict on both parts of the island, was popular. A precautionary backstop was formally accepted by the British government.
Threats from the Democratic Unionist Party to withdraw support from the Conservative government brought turmoil. Its election success, in spite of the “cash for ash” scandal, saw leadership move to Westminster. ‘Hard’ Brexiteers cheered them on. Fearful Northern Ireland business and farming leaders urged Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds to support the draft agreement. They were ignored.
Little progress was made in meeting the State’s major challenges: building homes for a growing population and providing an efficient and affordable health service. Homeless numbers continued to rise, as did demand for social and affordable housing and accommodation in the private sector. Greedy landlords were blamed as rents rose by double-digit figures.
Government proposals for ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ stalled. A national development plan, designed to cope with population growth and promote Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford as ancillary industrial hubs to Dublin, was launched. But developers continued to apply pressure for the lucrative rezoning of brownfield sites while they postponed the construction of necessary apartments. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy remained under immense pressure. A Sinn Féin motion of no confidence in his performance failed when Fianna Fáil stood by confidence and supply agreement.
Healthcare prospects were bleak. The number of patients on trolleys generated near daily reports, as did the inability of the Health Service Executive to keep within its budget. But the treatment of hundreds of women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy was truly shocking. Elsewhere, Minister for Health Simon Harris’s handling of the abortion referendum and the subsequent legislation was competent. By year’s end, however, nurses were preparing for industrial action and the projected cost of a national children’s hospital had doubled.
Within Government, Independent Minister for Childrern Catherine Zappone displayed courage and determination when the occasion demanded. Minister for Transport Shane Ross concentrated on publicity-generating projects.
Sinn Féin’s hoped-for breakthrough did not materialise. Efforts by outgoing president Gerry Adams to encourage the DUP to re-establish an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland were rejected. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, nominated MEP Liadh Ní Riada to challenge President Michael D Higgins. That miscalculation generated much negative publicity as President Higgins swept home for a second term and Sinn Féin’s vote collapsed.
As the economic outlook dimmed, Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe tried to shake off damning criticisms of their handling of the State’s finances. A carefully crafted image of budgetary prudence was stripped away by the Fiscal Advisory Council. The independent statutory body denounced their budgetary arithmetic as “lacking credibility” and based on ‘unrealistic assumptions’.
On the surface, as Government points out, the economy is strong. The Exchequer is bulging with cash, much of it from multinational companies. Unemployment has fallen to 5 per cent and growth is expected to exceed 7 per cent. What could possibly go wrong?