Thursday 22 August 2019

Given the storms on international waters, we could be forgiven for forgetting we had our own dramas

Trouble on the home front: Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Getty
Trouble on the home front: Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Getty
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

In a year that dragged us kicking and screaming into the middle layer of a Brexit-Trump sandwich, we could be forgiven for forgetting that we, too, had an election in 2016.

And it even seemed dramatic at the time.

With the nation launched straight into a General Election campaign in January, a helpful new website promised to take the mystery out of the voting process.

Smartvote was dubbed the Tinder of politics, asking candidates in every constituency to give their opinion on 30 key issues such as rent, abortion, public transport, health insurance, hospital overcrowding and water charges and match them up with voters according to their views.

But the situation on the ground was more serious than that. Much of the country was under water in the aftermath of serious flooding while, on the other hand, the issue of Irish Water as an entity was another major difficulty troubling politicians hoping to keep their seats.

January still wasn't complete when Joan Burton was up to her knees in another sticky situation, when she appointed David Begg, a staunch Labour Party supporter, as chairman of the Pensions Authority, prompting a storm of accusations of cronyism.

The accuracy of the polls has taken a bashing throughout 2016 - but two separate polls carried out in mid January last were eerily accurate, charting the plummeting support for Fine Gael and Labour.

On January 27, a bullish Alan Kelly was predicting that Labour would win a lot more than 15 seats.

They may have done - but for an even more bullish interview he gave to Niamh Horan in the 'Sunday Independent' just four days later in which he declared: "Power is a drug."

"Anybody who says that power isn't attractive is telling you a lie. Of course it is," he said.

"It's obviously a drug. It's attractive. It's something you thrive on. It suits some people. It doesn't suit others. I think it suits me."

It proved to be the interview of the election.

Renua, a mere fledgling on the Irish political scene, was having its own problems, meanwhile, losing five potential candidates before the election had even been called.

Nevertheless, Leo Varadkar seemed to think that Lucinda Creighton had a shot at being in the Cabinet, calling her a politician of class and ability.

Fine Gael was pinning all its hopes on the fiscal space, the slogan "Keep the Recovery Going" - and confining its election trail campaigning to a few factories. In Castlebar, Enda let loose on "the whingers".

The polls were sending mixed messages and when the ballot papers were unfurled, the shock was seismic.

Political heads had rolled, including former ministers Alex White, Lucinda Creighton, James Reilly, Jimmy Deenihan, Alan Shatter and Kathleen Lynch. Labour was decimated. Fine Gael was maimed. Fianna Fáil jubilant.

Forming a government was the hard part and continued awkwardly right through the official 1916 commemorations.

On the traditional St Patrick's Day visit to Washington, acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny quipped: "Bejaysus, I wish I didn't have to go back to face what I have to face."

Irish Water brought talks between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to the brink of collapse but finally, 63 days later, a government was formed with Independents. Shaky but present, they went on to do battle with such trying issues as the enormous, spiralling housing crisis, Irish Water, the Eighth Amendment, judicial appointments and even the issue of Ireland's neutrality, with the vast majority of inner spats centring around members of the Independence Alliance - most notably Transport Minister Shane Ross.

But in any case, bigger storms were brewing on international waters.

Ministers had been urgently dispatched across the Irish Sea in a bid to see if quiet diplomacy rather than open pleas might persuade ex-pats living in Britain to back the Remain campaign.

With Britain remaining our largest trading partner, fears rose about how our economy might start to look with our near neighbours isolated from the European Union and how we might even begin to manage the Border with the North. And, more alarmingly, whether the re-emergence of a Border might also reignite violent tensions between the two communities in the six counties.

Minister of State John Halligan paid a visit to the London Irish community centre in Camden, to try to persuade them to vote. Afterwards, he revealed that a Sikh taxi driver had confided in him that there were 'too many foreigners' in the UK and at that point he knew "it was lost".

The silent rip tide had become an unstoppable tsunami. And, again, the polls were wrong, having assured a victory for the Remain side.

The result was announced on the morning of June 24, with 51.9pc voting in favour of leaving the European Union and 48.1pc voting in favour of remaining a member of the European Union.

Northern Ireland and Scotland alone in the Union had voted Remain and it plunged Britain into a state of continuing crisis and debate over whether it would be a 'hard Brexit', withdrawing from every agreement with the EU, or a 'soft Brexit', which would see them remaining in the common trade area.

On the morning of November 9, Irish people awoke to the shock news that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States - that is, if they hadn't done an all-nighter and watched the unfolding drama for themselves as Mr Trump took Florida, Ohio and North Carolina to start with.

And then we heard Enda Kenny had been third on Donald's list of phone calls to world leaders, stealing a march on even the UK and Germany.

"I had a very good conversation with the president elect, he understands Ireland very well," Enda Kenny said afterwards - trying to forget that in May, he had described some of Mr Trump's comments as "racist and dangerous".

But a 10-minute phone call could do little to answer the question of what may happen if Mr Trump decides to slash the US corporate tax rate, or how he might choose to look on the undocumented Irish in America - not to mention how the global picture may turn out in his hands.

Irish Independent

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