Political shifts North and South

 

It has been a difficult year for the Government on a number of fronts. And, in spite of a gradual fall-off in support because of ministerial waste and incompetence, political developments in Northern Ireland and the introduction of a socially-caring December Budget offer it the prospect of recovery.

The significance of that electoral bounce remains to be measured by opinion polls. But it is unlikely to match the turnaround secured on the strength of a major Cabinet reshuffle and a popular budget at the end of 2004.

With less than 18 months remaining to a general election, the political atmosphere has changed. Party conferences have become dominated by the consideration of various coalition alignments as the electorate is offered alternatives to a Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government. Any combination, it would appear, is acceptable - provided it does not include Sinn Féin.

The ending of the IRA's campaign and the decommissioning of its weapons may open the door for Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to participate in a power-sharing Executive and a revived Assembly. Certainly, the two governments will push for the implementation of the Belfast Agreement and the re-establishment of its institutions early in the New Year.

But the drive to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold does not extend to this State. At various times during the past year the party, which may hold the balance of power in the next Dáil, was emphatically told by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Progressive Democrats that it was not acceptable as a partner in government.

Events in Northern Ireland dominated political coverage in 2005 as the republican movement went through the messy process of winding up its armed struggle, ending criminal activity and decommissioning weapons. From the beginning, Sinn Féin was on the back foot as it sought to deny IRA involvement in a £26.5million Northern Bank robbery and to distance itself from the murder of Belfastman Robert McCartney.

Pressure from the two governments to end criminality and recognise the PSNI became intense as the McCartney sisters campaigned for the killers of their brother to be brought to justice. Having failed to mollify the family by internal republican disciplinary measures and facing Westminster and local elections that would test the robustness of Sinn Féin's peace strategy, Gerry Adams called on the IRA to end its armed struggle and to embrace politics. The process lasted until September when Gen John de Chastelain finally reported that the IRA had disposed of all its weapons. It was a hugely significant development but, because of inordinate delays, was treated as an anticlimax.

In the meantime, the political landscape of Northern Ireland had transformed. The Rev Ian Paisley's DUP practically wiped out the Ulster Unionist Party at Westminster. David Trimble lost his seat and was replaced as party leader by Sir Reg Empey. The SDLP was resilient and won two seats, including one by the party leader, Mark Durkan. Sinn Féin took five seats and made striking gains at council level. There was, however, no rush to reconciliation. The DUP talked about a long period of normalisation before it could share power with Sinn Féin.

The onward march of Sinn Féin caused political fright down here. This was reflected in the Government's negative reaction to the reappearance of the "Colombia Three"; by criticism of Sinn Féin activities as a threat to the State by Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and by the release of documents involving Frank Connolly.

On the industrial front, the Taoiseach played a cautious role, reassuring the trade union movement of his good will while encouraging economic development and wage moderation through inward migration. Construction of an independently operated terminal at Dublin airport was deferred; Aer Lingus was effectively kept within State control and the privatisation of bus routes remained stalled. Exploited GAMA workers were helped. And Mr Ahern was critical of Irish Ferries for seeking to replace Irish workers with cheap migrant labour. Eventually, an undertaking to strengthen protections for workers set the scene for negotiations on a new social partnership deal in 2006.

The Government was shocked out of its supine response to vested interests by a series of RTÉ programmes, Rip-off Republic, which identified extensive anti-competitive practices and overcharging. Fianna Fáil Ministers sanctioned abolition of the Groceries Order, which keeps food prices artificially high. But progress in tackling anti-competitive practices within the professions was disappointingly slow.

The Catholic Church remained mired in sexual scandal with the Ferns report providing a shocking indictment of how former bishops had handled allegations of child sexual abuse against 21 priests. A similar inquiry has been established by a hesitant Government in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Confidence in the Garda was shaken by a report from the Morris tribunal concerning abuses and criminal activity by members of the force in Donegal. Publican Frank Shortt was awarded damages for wrongful imprisonment. And an inquiry was launched into the death in police custody of 14-year-old Brian Rossiter in Clonmel.

From a position where the Government performed well in opinion polls at the beginning of the year, Fianna Fil went on to lose by-elections in Kildare North and Meath. By mid-year, Fine Gael and the Labour Party had come together to offer themselves as the nucleus of an alternative government. But the Opposition parties have yet to convince voters they can run the country more effectively than the incumbents. The Government parties, on the other hand, must become more innovative and show they have learned from their mistakes. With the economy growing strongly, the election - when it comes - is likely to be a close run thing.