It was the former British Prime Minister who once said “a week is a long time in politics”. If this is so, the past year must have seen like an eternity to the parties in government in this country.
How different it all was just twelve months ago. December 2013 saw the government achieving its primary objective of waving goodbye to the Troika; the economic indicators were showing some signs of a return to growth; and both Fine Gael and Labour were showing a modest recovery in the opinion polls.
Twelve months on after a year of dramatic events that nobody could have predicted, the government is under pressure on a whole range of fronts with both parties in government recording their lowest levels of support in the opinion polls for many years.
The year we are bidding farewell to saw, among other things, the resignation of the Garda Commissioner; the resignation of the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter; the resignation of Eamon Gilmore as Tánaiste and Leader of the Labour Party; local and European elections which led to major losses for the government parties, Labour in particular; a cabinet reshuffle; a botched Seanad by-election which saw government TDs and Senators voting against their own nominee and hoping desperately that he would not win; and in the later part of the year the emergence of mass demonstrations against austerity in general and the especially the water charges.
When the then Garda Commissioner, Martin Callanan, made his ‘disgusting’ comment at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee last January he could little have envisaged that it would set off a chain of events that would lead to his own early retirement; the resignation of Alan Shatter and the establishment of a plethora of inquiries that may yet come back to haunt the government.
Controversies in the justice area dominated political events in the early part of the year and, what was widely seen as spectacularly inept handing of these, further undermined public confidence in the government and the mid-term local and European elections, that were always going to be difficult, and provided a platform for the public to vent their anger with the government.
This they duly did, with the consequences for the Labour Party being particularly serious as it lost all its European seats and almost two thirds of its councillors. The results led to the departure of Eamon Gilmore. Joan Burton has performed solidly as Labour Leader and Tánaiste, but the opinion polls would tend to suggest that those who saw the election of a new leader as a solution to Labour’s problems were somewhat naïve.
It was a good year for Sinn Féin with spectacular successes in the European and local elections and a continuing strong performance in the opinion polls. It would seem that those who express support for Sinn Féin in the opinion polls are unmoved by the serious issues raised concerning the conduct of Gerry Adams – issues which certainly would have led to the early departure of the leader of any other party. The problem for Sinn Féin however, is that their results in actual elections have never matched the levels achieved in the polls.
Fianna Fáil did well in the local elections and is again the biggest party in local government. However, the party generally has been flat-lining in the polls and is still a very long way off the 35% / 40% support it could once have relied on.
The final few months of the year have been dominated by the water charges. Coming at the end of a six year period of austerity, the introduction of a new charge for water was never going to be an easy sell, but the extent and ferocity of the opposition has taken TDs in all parties by surprise. The Socialist Party and People Before Profit could not believe their luck that such an issue had fallen into their laps.
Clearly the handing of the issue by the government was a disaster, something that they belatedly admitted. While the new charges announced by Minister Alan Kelly are well below those originally proposed, the turn-out for the demonstration in Dublin on December 10th showed that there are many for whom no charge at any level is acceptable. While the numbers who participated are still a matter of dispute, by any measure it was a significant turn-out for a working day shortly before Christmas. Some of the more fanciful forecasts made by the leaders of the anti-water charge campaign – that the government would collapse in the face of the demonstration – turned out to be wide of the mark. It was significant that in the vote on the motion of confidence in the Taoiseach on the day before the demonstration, there was not a single defection from the Fine Gael or Labour ranks.
The government will be hoping that the middle ground will accept the new charges and that the modest benefits introduced in the budget, which were overshadowed by the water charges controversy, will lead to an improved mood among the electorate.
Both parties in government have gone out of their way to dismiss any suggestion of early election and have insisted that they will remain in office until early 2016. Certainly with their poll numbers at current levels it would be political suicide for Fine Gael and Labour to cut and run at the moment.
However, given the course of events over the past few months it would be a brave –or foolish – observer who will make political predictions for 2015.
Image taken from www.eiu.com.