Fionnan Sheahan: Parties still have a lot to do in less-frenetic 2010
TDs return from a shorter-than-usual Christmas break today hoping this year will be slightly calmer than the previous one, which even Taoiseach Brian Cowen conceded was somewhat of an annus horribilis.
These 12 months certainly won't be as frenetic as 2009, without the local and European elections, a Lisbon Treaty referendum, the Bord Snip report, the Commission on Taxation and an array of budgets.
But there'll still be plenty happening on the economic front between the setting up of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), the potential further recapitalisation of the main banks, the banking crisis inquiry and another €3bn to €4bn worth of cuts in Budget 2011.
The unemployment crisis will remain an ever-present blight for many families.
The knock-on effects are being seen in the rapidly increasing number of homeowners who have not paid their mortgages for the past year, now standing at 6,400.
And a record number of repossession cases are expected to go before the High Court this year, after they already increased to 970 new applications in 2009 -- up from 374 in 2007.
The palpable public anger over the wide-ranging consequences of the banking crisis and dramatic economic downturn justifies the airing in a public inquiry of its causes from the political, banking and regulatory perspectives.
This perception will have to be matched by the Government's decision today on the format of the inquiry.
After the hurdles of late last year were overcome, Fianna Fail and the Green Party appear to be bedding down for the long haul through to 2012. Barring any major mishaps, the Coalition should be able to see out the year.
Yet a chipping away at their majority can't be ruled out, given the way this coalition handle emerging situations like the floods or the cold weather.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's health will, unfortunately, be there in the background for the Government.
Across the political spectrum though, there is nothing but goodwill and a hope on all sides of Leinster House for a complete recovery for the most significant political figure of last year.
The Government will remain under continual pressure, but the scrutiny will also fall on the opposition parties to a greater degree as the political waters calm.
The spotlight has still to be firmly shone on aspects of the policy platforms of Fine Gael and the Labour Party and 2010 will set the scene for the next general election -- provided the coalition stay the five-year term.
Credibility is the name of the game and the opposition must keep up its efforts to maintain it has solutions and can act in a responsible manner.
Fine Gael are going pretty steady and need to continue to build their image as alternative leaders of the government by developing a range of policies that can be implemented if it gets into power. The party needs to avoid silly mistakes like blaming the Justice Minister when the GRA threaten to go on strike. Fine Gael's penchant for shooting itself in the foot is never all that far away.
The doubts will linger over Enda Kenny, so the party's best option is to continue to concentrate on his electoral record and promote the team around the party leader.
Last year, the party's standing was strengthened with its local elections results and the by-election success of George Lee.
But it lost the NAMA debate and appeared not to know how to react when the Government actually did cut €4bn.
Its New Era document goes beyond simply talking about job creation and coming up with an investment plan.
Richard Bruton's track record remains a valuable asset, while Lee has star quality -- provided he sticks to the script. The additions of Leo Varadkar, James Reilly and Michael Creed to the frontbench provide strength in depth to a previously flimsy line-up.
Fine Gael's challenge is to be taken seriously across all public policy areas.
For the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore's ability to tap into the public mood and reflect their frustrations remains the key asset to the party.
The party leader is far better than Kenny at striking a blow and delivering the 20-second soundbite in a 24-hour news media era.
However, there are continuing and valid question marks over his party's economic policies, the level of detail and whether they would work.
Aspects of its pre-Budget document didn't stack up, like the 48pc tax rate, as it has the potential to make the country uncompetitive, and the fudge on cuts to public sector pay and social welfare payments.
Gilmore must address this deficit in his leadership.
Throughout last year, the party rightly focused on the issue of job creation and protection, which is easily understood by the public.
THE dismay of those who lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, and are left without the ability to support their families cannot be understated.
Pat Rabbitte summed it up best when he read a letter from a recently unemployed family man in his constituency, who noted: "There's only so many times you can walk the dog in the day."
Gilmore talks about a new country and a new politics and so on, but needs to put some flesh on the bone. Proclaiming 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' is a pipe dream when he's working off a base of only 20 seats and Fine Gael are so far ahead.
Nonetheless, ploughing its own furrow still makes eminent sense for Labour at the next general election.
The energy of their new TDs -- Sean Sherlock, Ciaran Lynch and Joanna Tuffy -- helps take away from the lengthy tenures of some of the frontbench.
Gilmore needs to add some realism to his idealism.
Sinn Fein's TDs will continue to muddle along, but the party does have enormous problems and are a far cry from the threat they posed five years ago.
The party has never recovered from Fianna Fail's decision to tackle them head-on at a local level and Gerry Adams' hilarious general election performance.
Adams' attempts to briefly direct operations in the Dail last year was quite pathetic.
The departure of Cllr Killian Forde, a bright and articulate prospect, speaks volumes for the party's fall on this side of the border.
Sinn Fein will be looking for the Donegal South-West by-election as a means to revive its fortunes and have a strong candidate in Senator Pearse Doherty. But the party's ability to strike real fear into their opponents is long gone.