Three days tell the story of the year in politics in 2022; three days whose events, and their effects on the country and its politics will remain in the memory after the squabbles and petty scandals of the year have faded from view.
The first date was on Friday, January 21st, when the Taoiseach – in another Friday televised address from Government Buildings, of a sort which had become synonymous with gloomy announcements of immediate lockdowns over the previous two years – announced that the Government would lift almost all Covid restrictions from 6am the following morning.
He spoke in the wake of a giddy Cabinet meeting which had reviewed the latest public health advice – cautious, as ever – and decided to press ahead with a quick reopening despite misgivings among some health experts. Only a couple of weeks earlier, cases had spiked to over 20,000 a day – but Ireland’s spectacularly successful vaccine programme meant that the infections were mostly mild and did not put unsustainable pressure on the hospital system. After a battle that had raged through 2021, the vaccine had finally beaten the pandemic.
It seems like a different world now, but back at the start of the year, less than 12 months ago, the country gasped in disbelief at the news that household visits would be permitted with no restrictions, that the early closing time for pubs and restaurants and events would be scrapped, as would capacity restrictions for outdoor events and indoor events, including weddings.
Requirements for physical distancing, seated only indoor tables, pods of six for activities, the Covid pass requirement for all venues and activities, the requirement to maintain contact details – all gone. The mood at the subsequent press conference in Government Buildings was almost light-headed.
The Taoiseach could hardly contain himself. “Spring is coming, and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to one as much as this one,” he said. “As we look forward to this spring, we need to see each other again, we need to see each other smile, we need to sing again.”
Thankfully, nobody in the Government Press Centre actually started singing that night. But at times, it seemed like they might.
Characteristically, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, didn’t want to get carried away. “It is important to say the pandemic itself is not over,” he warned. But, really, it was.
Privately, Government figures grumpily asked: has everyone forgotten that we got through a pandemic?
How did the passing of this great national calamity affect politics? Polls showed that the Government was generally seen by the public – apart from one period mid-pandemic when a hasty reopening at Christmas 2020 was followed by a long, crushing lockdown – to have handled the crisis well. But there was no sustained Covid bounce for it – a brief period of decent polls was over by mid-summer, when voters’ attention returned to housing, healthcare and the cost-of-living, and their judgment of the performance of the Coalition was not flattering.
Privately, Government figures grumpily asked: has everyone forgotten that we got through a pandemic? In their hearts, though, they knew that politics is a forward-looking game in which eaten bread is soon forgotten.
The end of Covid bestowed no halo on the Coalition, or at least, not for long. Instead, it allowed normal politics to resume. And that was the biggest thing to happen this year: a return to business as usual.
War in Ukraine
The ink was hardly dry on the lifting of Covid restrictions when the biggest international story of the year – one which would have profound effects on Ireland and the world – exploded, as the Russian army rolled into Ukraine.
Declaring that the “special military operation” was intended to “demilitarise” and “denazify” Ukraine, Vladimir Putin sent tanks and troops across the border, while air strikes peppered Ukrainian cities. Motorised brigades headed for Kyiv, and it seemed that the war could be over within weeks.
Putin had reckoned however without the indomitable will of the Ukrainians, led by their president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Offered safe passage by the US, Zelenskiy memorably replied that he didn’t need a ride, he needed ammunition. It was a line that will pass down through the ages. The Russian advance was stopped; western countries poured military aid into Ukraine. The EU and Nato banded together to resist the Russian invasion, precisely the opposite of Putin’s intention; despite Ireland’s neutrality, Micheál Martin played a hawkish role on the European Council. Russia became a pariah.
Gradually, the tide of the war changed; Russian units scarpered with their tails between their legs from much of the country, leaving behind evidence of horrible atrocities and war crimes. The year ends with Ukraine having taken back much of its territory, though the eastern front has settled down for a grim winter.
In Ireland, the impact of the invasion was felt mainly through an influx of refugees and surging fuel prices. Rising energy prices turbo-charged a wave of inflation which tipped 10 per cent, piling pressure on the Government to ease the squeeze on households. In fact, the rising cost of living had been pressing the Government since early in the year; the first €500 million package was announced in February. Not enough, complained the opposition, not nearly enough. But there was plenty more where that came from.
Not until the Budget, though. Even as Covid supports to businesses were withdrawn, the economy bounced back spectacularly, further fueling inflation. There was fierce political pressure for a pre-summer package, but Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath – the strongest axis of the Coalition – held firm against demands for another cost of living package, from the public, the media, the opposition, their own parties and occasionally their own leaders.
And while this meant a few torrid Dáil sessions and a few scratchy radio interviews, it meant that when they eventually did unveil another cost-of-living package in the Budget, they were able to go for a shock-and-awe approach – announcing an €11 billion giveaway, far exceeding expectations.
If immigration does become an issue in Irish politics – something that all the mainstream parties seek to avoid – 2022 may signal the start of it
The package was favourably received, sparking a rebound for the Coalition in the polls and seeing Donohoe cheered at the Fine Gael parliamentary meeting, an event filled with people who habitually complained of his parsimony.
The Budget also confirmed the Coalition’s habit of throwing money at every problem, of course, but at least Donohoe and co could argue that it was because of their sound economic management that they had money to throw at problems. Well, yes – that and the tech and pharma multinationals whose taxes continued to fill the Government’s coffers at an even greater rate than before. In fairness to Donohoe, he managed to squirrel away €2 billion into a new rainy day fund, with another four committed for next year. Whether this gesture of extravagant prudence survives the pressures of 2023, with an election in the middle distance, we shall see.
The State’s capacities groaned under the pressure of refugees from the war in Ukraine. Tens of thousands arrived throughout the spring and summer, finding shelter in hotels, holiday homes, all manner of converted facilities and in spare rooms. Approaching the year’s end, the numbers were heading for 70,000, and with the Russian military now unambiguously targeting civilian infrastructure – an admission of weakness, but a savage one – there was no sign of the influx abating.
And while the reception for Ukrainians was almost universally welcoming and supportive, the sheer numbers – along with a jump in the numbers of asylum seekers from other countries, many of them black and brown-skinned young men – began to arouse something like public apprehension about the scale of the arrivals, especially at a time of immense stress in the housing market. Protests in the East Wall area of Dublin, at the location of a centre for asylum seekers there in a converted office building, signalled that something was stirring in the undergrowth. If immigration does become an issue in Irish politics – something that all the mainstream parties seek to avoid – 2022 may signal the start of it.
It was impossible to separate the housing crisis from this and a dozen other domestic issues. Every week, and usually more than once a week, the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald berated Micheál Martin in the Dail at leaders’ questions for the Government’s failure to tackle the housing shortage. On Thursdays, when the number twos step in, Pearse Doherty would berate Leo Varadkar about housing.
On and on it went all year, Sinn Féin accusing the Government of failing to prioritise public house-building, the Government accusing Sinn Féin of trying to make populist political capital out of the crisis. They both have a point. And while construction sites are mushrooming everywhere and the targets for housebuilding this year seem set to be met or even exceeded, this does not even keep pace with rising demand. Rents continue to climb, pushing tens of thousands of mainly young people to the brink. Housing will continue to be the great domestic political issue of our time, and the Coalition’s greatest achilles heel.
A few politicians survived scrapes in 2022; the DPP decided not to bring a career-ending prosecution against Leo Varadkar, while Mary Lou McDonald endured a torrid autumn, facing questions first about the financing of her home in a book by Shane Ross and then being name-checked in a gangland criminal trial in which a former party and constituency colleague of hers turned State’s evidence against a former gangland comrade. It also emerged that McDonald was suing RTÉ for defamation – one of a plethora of Sinn Féin legal actions, issued or threatened against the media and political opponents. McDonald, however, ends the year as she began it: leader of Ireland’s most popular political party and hot favourite to be the next Taoiseach.
Another politician didn’t survive. Junior minister Robert Troy became the third Fianna Fáil minister to resign or be sacked, after an investigative website revealed he had failed to completely or correctly register several properties.
Then as the year closed, Irish politics did something it had never done before: the switchover of leadership in the Taoiseach’s office was the third date of real significance in the year just passed.
The date itself shifted: scheduled originally for December 15th, Fine Gael relented and granted Micheál Martin an extra two days as Taoiseach in order to allow him attend his final European summit meeting in Brussels as Taoiseach, meaning an unwonted and unwanted all-day Saturday sitting of the Dáil on the weekend before Christmas.
Once touted as a resuscitation and relaunch of the Coalition at its mid-point, it became instead something quite different – a minor shifting around of Cabinet jobs, with no personnel changes, with a few changes in the junior ranks a few days later. Varadkar likened it to the peaceful handover of power by the Cumann na nGaedhael government to their former civil war adversaries in Fianna Fáil in 1932, but this was rather losing the run of himself a bit. And yet there was some significance to the operation: with future government formation in a fractured political system not unlikely to feature multi-party coalitions, this sort of rotation may well become a feature of parliamentary and political life. Let’s hope they schedule it better in future.
The smooth changeover demonstrated a couple of other things about the current state of politics that will be relevant for the coming year. It confirmed the centrist alliance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as, at present, the strongest force in Irish politics; if you regard the two old rivals as essentially one party – as many Sinn Féin and left-wing opponents do, labelling them FFG – then that party is the biggest in the Dáil, the most popular in Irish politics, and could conceivably be re-elected. That depends, of course, on whether it can remain so united in the face of an approaching election. Maintaining that government unity as electoral competition approaches will be one of the new Taoiseach’s greatest challenges.
It also confirmed that the shape of Irish politics for the immediate future at least will be this FFG force in government versus Sinn Féin, whose dominance of the opposition eclipses both Labour and the Social Democrats and allows only the occasional space for smaller party and independent TDs to elbow their way into the discourse. For very different reasons TDs like Richard Boyd-Barrett of People Before Profit, Peadar Tóibín of Aontu and the high volume rural independents made themselves heard over the year. Exercising real political influence, however, remains beyond them.