Thursday 19 April 2018

New parties, TDs in jail, and a gay minister - the year in Leinster House

Health Minister Leo Varadkar with broadcaster Miriam O' Callaghan after coming out live on RTÉ radio.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar with broadcaster Miriam O' Callaghan after coming out live on RTÉ radio.
Enda Kenny poses for a selfie with Lizanne Barnwall at LinkedIn headquarters in Dublin.
TDs Catherine Murphy, right, and Roisin shortall announce candidates for the Social Democrats. Photo: Damien Eagers.
Lucinda Creighton launches her new political party.
Clare Daly leaves prison.
John Downing

John Downing

In the past 12 months, politics and politicians were never far from the headlines. Here, John Downing looks back over the gaffes, the inquiries and the ever-looming election

LEO tells the nation he's gay: 2015 was barely a fortnight old when Health Minister Leo Varadkar announced he was gay.

His "coming out" on national radio included other surprises - that old head on young shoulders is actually aged just 36. And he wanted to be Health Minister from a very young age.

The announcement set a tone for the referendum debate on same-sex marriage. There followed a series of moving personal revelations from many people, notably TV3 political correspondent Ursula Halligan.

* It was the 'Year of the New Party'. Lucinda Creighton ended a year-long tease with her new party, eventually called Renua Ireland, proposing "new politics" and better value for taxpayers.

Next up was the Independent Alliance led by unlikely allies spanning right and left, town and country. Principals include Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Finian McGrath.

In July, the Social Democrats, led by Róisín Shortall and Stephen Donnelly, launched, stressing better public services.

Finally, there was another attempt by the hard left to unite with the Anti Austerity Alliance fusing with the People Before Profit to become the AAA-PBP. They have four TDs and 28 councillors and have put the emphasis on electoral co-operation.

* May 22 was a day of positive and joyous politics. Six out of 10 people turned out for the world's first popular vote on whether to permit same-sex marriage. The Yes vote of 1.2 million, representing 62pc of voters, was higher than expected and the count result was known within an hour.

Those advocating a No conceded defeat with generosity and dignity but pointed out that they still represented a very large group. The sun shone and there were exuberant celebrations across the country. Leaders of the Christian churches said they must think again about how to better communicate with ordinary people.

All sides agreed it had been a good, dignified and tolerant campaign.

* That tale of the Army and the ATMs was one of the strange political stories in 2015. It started harmlessly with the Taoiseach addressing his colleagues at the PPE/Christian Democrat conference in Madrid just after the October give-away Budget.

Mr Kenny was grappling for ways of explaining how much the Irish economy had recovered. He said that in 2012 the Central Bank governor, Patrick Honohan, had warned him the Army should be put on standby to guard bank ATMs in case of a Greek-style meltdown. Subsequent inquiries revealed no such specific thing ever happened.

Kenny's many defenders said it was typical of critics to miss the main message by focusing on nit-picking detail. Critics said the Taoiseach's love of folkloric embroidery made him an unreliable witness sometimes.

* The November "general election that never was" was also odd. By early autumn it was clear many in Fine Gael felt it best to do a big, generous Budget on October 13, and then cut to seeking voters' approval for re-election.

The Fine Gaelers believed hanging about much longer was only an opportunity for dirty internal rows to go public; a hospital trolley crisis; a threatened nurses' strike; and weather disasters such as flooding.

Well, Labour had a simple counter-argument: "You'll do no such thing, we'll be milled." And Labour won that argument as November came and went without an election.

Fine Gael begrudgers argue the delay has not done their Labour buddies much good. Labour are still languishing on single figures in the opinion polls.

* The Banking Inquiry by TDs and senators into the 2008 system collapse, which cost taxpayers €64bn, waxed and waned throughout 2015. There were internal rows, external rows and rows about the rows.

At time of writing, it remains unclear whether the late January 2016 deadline for the final report can be met.

Critics dismiss it as a crock from start to finish. Supporters argue it performed a valuable exercise in hearing publicly, for the first time in many instances, from many key people close to the action in 2008.

The testimony of three former Fianna Fáil finance ministers - Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen - was awaited with interest. Ahern had also been a boom-time Taoiseach, while Cowen was at the helm in Government Buildings when everything fell apart.

All three did better than expected, making the inquiry outcome unlikely to be a "get Fianna Fáil before the election".

* There was a mixum-gatherum of many other 2015 political topics from which you can take your pick.

There was a prolonged row over the Siteserv company, bought by a firm linked to business mogul Denis O'Brien.

And there was the iterim report by Mr Justice Nial Fennelly into the circumstances surrounding the forced departure of a Garda Commissioner in March 2014. This in turn had led to resignations by the head of the Justice Department and the Justice Minister in 2014.

Leftist TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace made a swift visit to Limerick Jail; other colleagues like Paul Murphy and Joan Collins are heading to court over water protests.

But above all, an election now beckons - expect voting in late February or early March.

Irish Independent

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