Wednesday 28 September 2016

Tears for fears: faces of 2015

We look back on a turbulent year that will live long in the memory... and at the people who helped shape it in their own likeness

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Saddest day: Friends comfort each other as the remains of J1 student Niccolai Schuster leave the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, in June. Niccolai and five others died following the collapse of an apartment balcony in Berkeley, California.
Saddest day: Friends comfort each other as the remains of J1 student Niccolai Schuster leave the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, in June. Niccolai and five others died following the collapse of an apartment balcony in Berkeley, California.

It was a year of renewed optimism, as Ireland's pace of recovery quickened and was faster than many would have expected or hoped. Falling unemployment and economic growth give us hope that the tide of emigration has been halted, and the young people flooding through our airports in recent days are eager to see if their families can make a living here once again.

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It remains to be seen if the people give Enda Kenny and his Government credit for this in an election in the coming months. Our fate was in his hands in 2015 and is likely to be again in the coming years.

It was a year when Ireland also became a beacon of hope for gay rights across the world, when the marriage equality referendum was passed by a wide margin with Panti Bliss up front as an icon of a fast-changing country.

We had good reasons to be optimistic about the future but there are also grounds for caution. Finding a job was one thing, and may have been easier this year. Getting a roof over your head is proving a lot more difficult for many families as the country faces a housing shortage.

Figures published before Christmas showing that 1,600 children are living in emergency accommodation are an indictment of this Government's housing policy.

And while the economy looks brighter, the pace of recovery is uneven in certain parts of the country.

There were also some dark clouds on the international horizon as a migration crisis and the threat of jihadist terrorism became all too real on our European doorstep.

Kenny will go to the polls as Taoiseach in the spring. It is five years since our own Winter of Discontent in 2010, when the troika moved in and Ireland suffered an economic trauma unparalleled in the history of the State - and it seemed at the time that it would be difficult to recover.

In some senses, the turnaround has been remarkable. By the early part of this year, growth was surging ahead of the rest of Europe; unemployment is down from a 15pc high to 9pc, emigration has fallen, and by next year there could be more people coming here to work than are leaving.

If 2014 was a year when Kenny was hit by a series of crises, including the resignation of Alan Shatter and Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan, in 2015 the ship was steadied, and there were fewer political crises.

Support for Enda has never been overwhelming, but as 2015 closes, with the economy recovering, the opinion polls seem to show that he has been given grudging credit for the country's performance. By the end of this year, Fine Gael was at 32pc, with Fianna Fáil lagging way behind on 17pc.

In the depths of recession, the anti-austerity message of Sinn Féin and the hard Left resonated with the public, but it may be less attractive now that we have a Government that is back in free-spending mode - to such an extent that some economists warn that it is reckless.

The Government may also have been helped by events in Greece, where the economy crashed and the left-wing Syriza government under Alexis Tsipras came to power determined to resist the demands of its creditors, as prescribed by the hard left here. The Syriza government collapsed in chaos and split, but when its leader returned to office, it did so on the basis of compromise.

Without a doubt, the good news story of the first part of the year for the Government was the safe passage of the same-sex marriage referendum.

More than any other political event in recent decades, it galvanised young people, who joined in the campaign whole-heartedly. It culminated in celebrations at Dublin Castle, and Panti Bliss waving to crowds.

To a greater extent than ever before, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and conservative traditionalists were marginalised, as the Yes campaigners appealed to a new sense of family values. While the Catholic bishops seemed increasingly remote, issuing pastoral letters that were largely unread, the clever theme of the Yes campaign was: we value the institution of marriage - would you deny this right to your own son or daughter, brother or sister?

The cheering crowds on results day would have done more to convey a positive image of the country than any event since before the recession.

Kenny is rightly criticised for going to ground when times are tough, and avoiding difficult media interviews. He hardly uttered a memorable phrase in the entire year, other than making the dubious claim that the Army were ready to guard ATM machines at the height of the financial crisis. The public has reservations about him, but his decision to press ahead with the marriage-equality referendum showed he was in tune with the changing attitudes of middle Ireland.

Preparations are already well advanced for our General Election and Kenny will have learned from the British experience. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron went to the polls warning that the alternative to his party was a "coalition of chaos" between Ed Miliband's Labour and the Scottish Nationalists. The scaremongering proved successful and there is likely to be a similar theme in our election.

This year showed more than any other that the fates of people in many countries are closely interwoven - connecting Ireland, Africa, the Middle East and our neighbours in Europe. The war in Syria set off a migration crisis, and the political implications of this have been felt across Europe, from Greece to Germany to Britain.

And nowhere did we see this more than in the reaction to the photo of three-year old Alan Kurdi that seared itself into public consciousness. The sight of the Syrian boy's limp body on a beach in Turkey left a much deeper imprint than any number of articles, news bulletins, and hand-wringing appeals from UN officials.

He had drowned as his family tried to cross from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, one of tens of thousands who fled the Syrian conflict.

Within hours, politicians who had previously seemed cold or indifferent to the plight of Syrian refugees were forced to make a declaration of intent to accept the victims of war.

Earlier in the year, our own Navy played an important role in rescuing thousands of migrants as they crossed the Mediterranean. Under Search and Rescue Operations Director Shane Mulcahy, the LE Eithne is believed to have rescued up to 3,400 people. The huge migration from the shores of Africa and Turkey to EU countries not only became a massive search-and-rescue operation on a scale seldom seen before, it became a humanitarian crisis that reached all the way to Calais in France, where migrants gathered in a bid to stow away to Britain.

In the wake of Alan Kurdi's death, the reaction may have been one of sympathy. Angela Merkel, the uncrowned queen of Europe who has served for 10 years as German Chancellor, promised to let in 200,000 Syrian refugees.

Merkel was a leader who was prepared to step out of the traditional conservative mould, but her stance was highly controversial.

The welcome was by no means universal across the continent, and threatens to shatter whatever cohesion is left in the European Union.

Borders that before seemed open suddenly slammed shut as ISIS terrorists perpetrated the deadliest attacks on French soil since World War II, killing 130 people in Paris on November 13. It is the tragic event that will, regrettably, stand out from all others this year. The military response was predictable, with the French stepping up bombing campaigns on ISIS positions in Syria. With Vladimir Putin also involved in Syria on the side of the renegade President Assad, the dismembered country reaffirmed its position as the world's leading trouble spot.

The response may have been predictable, but authorities in France would not be under any illusion that the bombing campaign will erase the terrorist threat.

That was because the majority of the Paris attackers were either based in France or Belgium, having grown up in those countries.

Irish families suffered their own terrible tragedies this year including the death of six students in a balcony collapse in Berkeley, California in June.

In October, 10 Travellers, ranging in age from five months to 39, died in a fire in Carrickmines, Co Dublin. And then, on the same weekend, Garda Tony Golden was shot dead in Omeath, Co Louth, becoming the 88th member of the force to die in the line of duty.

In America, Donald Trump started the year mostly as a figure of fun, renowned for his ostentatious wealth, his verbal gaffes and implausible coiffure.

As more than one Twitter user pointed out, in 2015 he seemed like a YouTube comment section running for president.

But with his call to ban Muslims from entering America, he ended the year as a genuine menace, leading the race to become the Republican candidate in the next US Presidential election.

News of the attacks on Paris came through as Irish football fans watched the first leg of Ireland's Euros play-off match against Bosnia Herzegovina, which Ireland drew.

Our subsequent victory ensured the sporting year ends with great hope as Ireland looks forward to taking part in the Euro Championship for only the second time.

This year underlined the fickle nature of sport and the fluctuating fortunes of our football and rugby teams.

Earlier in the year, rugby reigned supreme and Paul O'Connell led the national team to its second successive Six Nations championship, but its early exit in the World Cup quarter final against Argentina darkened the mood considerably

With Munster and Leinster also out of sorts, don't be surprised if sports fans make giant leaps from the rugby bandwagon to become die-hard supporters of the soccer Boys in Green again in 2016.

If the Paris attacks cast a dark shadow over the year, Shane Long's goal against Germany in the Aviva Stadium in October was the ultimate exercise in triumph over adversity. Suddenly, as he sprinted to knock the ball into the German net, the country was on its feet and erupted in joy.

Here was a team that was written off just a few months ago, slammed by the pundits as no-hopers. Through sheer hard work, they clawed their way back and eventually won qualification.

Whether we win or lose the matches, the Euro Championships will give us reason to celebrate in 2016.

After the long years of recession, when Ireland had to make its own comeback in the face of adversity, the country will feel it deserves a party.

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