The end of the year always puts us in a reflective mood. Our Account Adviser, Tony Heffernan, reflects on an eventful year for Irish and international politics.
The political year now drawing to a close must surely rank as one of the most dramatic and memorable – at home and abroad – of our recent history.
For many people, of course, the year has been memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Twelve months ago, who would have forecast that 2016 would see the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States; the decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the EU; and the return of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, despite Fine Gael losing 26 seats when compared to the 2011 result?
For the first six months of the year, domestic politics was dominated by the February general election and the subsequent desperate efforts to put a government together. When an austerity-weary electorate went to the polls on February 26th it delivered an unmerciful kicking to the outgoing government, despite clear signs of economic recovery and a big reduction in the unemployment figures. The big loser in the election was the Labour Party, which went from 37 seats in 2011 to just seven in the new Dáil.
The election produced the most fragmented and diverse Dáil in the history of the State. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil emerged as the two biggest parties, but both were a long way from having anything close to an overall majority. It was clear that it was going to take some time to put a government together and that, indeed, proved to be the case. It took 63 days of tortuous negotiations and political maneuverings before a Taoiseach and the Government would eventually be elected.
Fianna Fáil took an early decision to resist attempts by Fine Gael to entice them into a ‘grand coalition’, clearly believing that its ambitions to rebuild to former glory would be best served by staying out of Government. This left Enda Kenny with no alternative but to seek the support of various independents.
When Enda Kenny was elected on May 6th he achieved office with the direct support of just around one third of Dáil Deputies. This was possible only because of the separate ‘confidence and supply’ agreement negotiated with Fianna Fáil under which Micheál Martin’s party would agree to abstain on key votes.
This left Fianna Fáil in a very strong position. It is not in Government but effectively it enjoys the power of veto over all Government policies. No legislation can be passed without Fianna Fáil’s say-so.
One of the benefits of the prolonged delay in putting the Government together was the establishment of a Committee on Dáil Reform which produced a report setting out proposals for major changes in the way in which the House conducts its business. Most of these proposals have been implemented and have resulted in a dramatic change in the balance of power in the Dáil. There is now significantly less time for Government business and much more for the Opposition. The threshold for qualification as a ‘Dáil group’ has been significantly reduced and there are now six parties and groups with access to key business like private members’ time and leaders’ questions.
Many people wondered if a government including disparate independents and dependent on the goodwill of Fianna Fáil could last. Despite stumbling on a number of occasions it has survived for seven months and shows no immediate sign of collapse. However, the combination of the minority status of the Government and changes in Dáil procedures has slowed the passage of legislation to a snail’s pace.
The issues facing the new Government in its first year are very similar to those that the last administration grappled with – housing, health, policing and water charges.
The water charges issue did enormous damage to the last government and particularly to Labour. The recent report of the ‘expert group’ constituted a spectacular victory for the various groups that campaigned against water charges. Water charges are effectively dead for all, other than those who recklessly waste this precious resource; yet many of the campaign groups refuse to recognise this and seem to want to continue the battle. The issue has now been referred to an all-party Dáil committee, but the main focus of its work is likely to be the future of Irish Water and what should be done about water meters.
The one major challenge facing the new Government that was not on the agenda of the last administration is Brexit. The Government was shocked to its core at the outcome of the June referendum that neither it, nor most people in this country, anticipated. Brexit is an enormously complicating factor for a whole range of economic and political issues here. The Government has been criticised for its failure to come up with a strategy to deal with Brexit, but it is hard to devise a plan when nobody yet knows what the nature of Brexit will be.
And finally the political year ends, as it began, with questions over the future of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. In the aftermath of the general election many people – including not a few in Fine Gael – thought that he would be gone by the end of 2016. Not for the first time has he shown a remarkable ability to survive in the face of adverse circumstances. Whether or not he can survive through 2017 remains to be seen.