Monday 18 February 2019

John Downing: 'Let's take time to inject a little goodwill into politics and reflect on some successes and failures'

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE
John Downing

John Downing

It's time to down the cudgels this Christmas Eve and try to spread some goodwill in the world of politics - if such a thing is ever possible.

This is, at all events, a ruminative time of year, when we take stock of the 12 months which - to this writer at least - not so much galloped by as evaporated, as the weeks began and ended with astonishing speed.

So, entering ruminative mode this Christmas, let me go over some things political, those I was sure would happen over the last 12 months - and those that did in fact happen.

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And let me in all humility share some predictions I got wrong. In fact, I'll lead with the big one that I got wrong.

A general election: I was sure that this would be unavoidable in 2018.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would want one before the 'new boy sheen' dimmed, I thought. He would be egged on by bullish Fine Gael TDs, eager to benefit from a strong opinion poll lead, while Fianna Fáil would be totally fed up with having responsibility but little real power.

In fact, those factors did not add up to us going to the polls after all. Both sides opted for an extension of one more Budget. So we are probably looking at a general election sometime after the hour goes back in 2020.

Neither of the 'big two' parties wants to take the blame for causing an election.

Since there is a cross-party agreement on the big issue of Brexit, an election could have been run. But it would not have looked good and the blame game could have been damaging.

President Michael D Higgins: all right, I cannot claim to be a political Einstein for predicting that Michael D would get another seven years at Áras an Uachtaráin. The signs that he was the voters' favourite were there from way back.

It was also clear that there would be a presidential election from shortly after Mary Lou McDonald had been installed as the new Sinn Féin president in February.

Credit is due to Senator Gerard Craughwell for rightly pushing the need for an election - but Ms McDonald's early declaration that her party would field a candidate was the clincher.

The really surprising part was Sinn Féin's lacklustre presidential election performance on both the canvass and in the final result.

Its candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, put in a strong performance but could not overcome her party's various shortcomings.

Everyone was surprised by the almost one in four votes captured by the unknown latecomer, Peter Casey.

He surely benefited from saying things that were deemed too edgy by many mainstream politicians.

Mary Lou McDonald: her poor take-off as new Sinn Féin leader was something else that I did not expect.

By now, some pundits will falsely tell you they knew all along that the voters had already 'priced in' the leadership change to a middle-class Dublin woman from a post-conflict generation.

But I did believe she had the potential to break new ground for Sinn Féin, attracting middle-class voters and more women supporters.

It is not happening and the party's struggles with a culture of bullying and the legacy of historic sex abuse cases, such as that of Máiría Cahill, remain among the obstacles to that party's breakthrough.

Ms McDonald is among the best performers at Leinster House. She is still feared by Fianna Fáil - the more so in the latter's continuance of the Confidence and Supply deal. Sinn Féin principals still believe they have the potential to claim 'the real opposition' status - but the gap between potential and realisation persists.

Repeal the Eighth: predicting the big referendum result in May equally does not merit too many accolades.

But like many people, I was surprised by the strength of the Yes vote at the end, with two out of three voters opting for change in a topic that has haunted the nation for near enough 40 years.

The tone of the debate was at times rough - but vastly better than our previous attempts to discuss this most difficult issue. The long Dáil debate on subsequent legislation was also a good thing - even if it did re-run much of the campaign topics. The nation has moved on from this issue.

Housing and health: these issues bring me to some predictions I wish I had got wrong. From a very low base, there was some housing progress in 2018. But we need far more at much greater speed.

The difficulties with the health service persist and, worse again, so does the air of political defeatism that surrounds the service. In October, the Budget for next year envisaged a record €17bn health spend.

We're not getting value for money and, on top of everything else, we face a series of nurses' strikes in 2019.

The sluggishness of housing provision and the problems in health remind us that we are poor at ordering our affairs.

Brexit: alas, everyone on this island knew this one was up in a heap at the end of 2017 and would continue to be so all through 2018. A series of deadlines came and went in March, June and October 2018. The EU and UK finally did a deal on November 25 - but its prime minister, Theresa May, now most certainly in her final months in office, just cannot sell it.

You can pick from any one of three or more scenarios for a way forward.

This year is ending with growing fears that we could be inadvertently sliding towards a no-deal crash-out Brexit. We cling to the hope that British politicians will finally see sense. We need to focus on the things over which we have control.

One thing we have learned from Brexit is how much the EU has done to almost obviate the Border in Ireland, with the 1992 single market and the generous donation of some €25bn in peace grants over the past 25 years. Through the Brexit talks, the EU leaders have shown a clear appreciation of the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the fragility of peace in the North.

That is in marked contrast with many politicians in London. And the continued lack of a power-sharing parliament and government in Belfast is positively criminal and a very poor reflection on both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

In summary, 2018 has been a noisy and difficult year in politics. It is equally clear that the upcoming 12 months will be just as challenging.

But there is one happy thing that we must keep in mind. For all our travails, we have a level of prosperity that was unthinkable just five years ago.

We have effectively full employment and the largest number at work in the State's history. We must avoid taking that for granted as that kind of presumption carries its own dangers.

Yes, our prosperity is fragile and it is not as evenly distributed as many of us would like. But those of us who lived through other times, and who knew unemployment and uncertainty, know the benefits of this happier situation.

With that happy thought, let me just wish Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

Irish Independent

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