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Johnny Fallon: Croke Park is the battleground this year ... and that's bad news for Labour

THE political landscape has changed a lot in the last year ... 2011 was something of a roller coaster of news. While 2012 may not be dawning in the atmosphere of government chaos that we saw last year, there is every reason to think that it will be very eventful in its own right.

Ten months in power and it is safe to say the honeymoon is over for the government. The Christmas break will have offered some respite after the budget but those in the corridors of power know that the real test is only beginning. There are some key points we should look out for in the coming months that will decide the fate of this government. Whether we like it or not, the full answer to our problems does not lie in our own hands.

As an economy dependent on trade we are still awaiting on real movement in Europe. The government can still add weight and pressure to the EU but first it needs to be clear on what it expects the ultimate resolution to be. Its quite clear that if the euro is to survive then it means a new treaty and significant debt write-offs in return for greater fiscal co operation. In a nutshell, that’s probably what the Irish government would like but it still fears to say it in case its told that they are eroding sovereignty again.

Meanwhile, at home there are other issues. The 2pc rise in VAT was a slight gamble. The government need this to come in on target or else they will be accused of taking an unnecessary measure while the economy was so fragile. The budget itself has very little wriggle room and with €3.6bn in cuts promised for next December the government desperately needs the economy to stay on target. 2011 gave some hope as the previous budget finally saw Ireland manage to broadly reach its predictions. The same must happen again this year or the government will be accused of misreading the situation and if the level of cuts must be increased as a result that could spell significant danger.

The Croke Park agreement looks set to be another battleground. There is considerable momentum building up behind the idea of scrapping the agreement and for unilateral measures to be imposed by the government. Such strong action would certainly lend steel to Fine Gaels vote, however with opinion polls showing Labour as low as 11pc it could signal a death knell for them. Labour must convince unions to speed up the Croke Park agreement or even to agree further measures evolving out of it. It is crucial for Labour to be able to demonstrate real and significant savings from the reforms this year, not in five years time. If they do so then they may ensure the spirit of change through co operation survives and they will have something to show for their time in government.

The health service is bound to cause even more problems. Minister James Reilly has not handled it well. The threat of cuts in the budget backfired and all the promises of immediate and complete change have disappeared. The Minister needs to show real and decisive action over the course of this year to prove that his dream of a new health structure is not dead. Once again, however, he will need to work far more closely with the Labour party if he is to get this through. His other option is to muddle on, talk the talk but let the service just continue and focus on savings here and there. This will inevitably lead to an even worse health service in the long term however.

Keeping the public onside is not going to be easy in the year ahead. Labour, all to aware of what happened to the Greens desperately need to show their influence at the cabinet table. The poll ratings have not been kind. Labour know that they face a new enemy in Sinn Fein and they must meet this challenge head on. Labour must demonstrate that they represent the left but do so in a fashion that is workable and realistic. If they want to survive then they must show that Sinn Fein does not offer an alternative. Labour must turn away from the fight with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and focus its attention here.

Sinn Fein showed in the presidential election that it has lost any desire to woo FF voters. Sinn Fein has set its sights firmly on the mass consolidation of the protest vote and the vote of the left. So long as Labour, the Socialists, People Before Profit and all other such groupings continue to allow Sinn Fein lead the left then its hard to stop that advance.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael look to be sitting very comfortably. But all may not be rosy in the garden for long. After a year that saw Fianna Fail incur a seemingly fatal disembowellng the party suddenly began to show signs of life again before Christmas. Party gatherings were well attended, its members fundraising draw brought in more money than in previous years. Fianna Fail is still the only party with organisational roots in every constituency and it is here that the main challenge lies to Fine Gael.

This year we will undoubtedly see Fine Gael attempt to use its new found strength to kill off Fianna Fail for once and for all and ensure that the vote Fine Gael attained in 2011 stays with it. However, many of those voters came from Fianna Fail, the recent support for Sean Gallagher suggested that the vote is still fluid enough. Fine Gael is under threat particularly in rural constituencies and it knows that while it can be sure to remain a larger force than FF for the foreseeable future, it cannot allow a resurgence in FF support or there are many voters who will jump on the bandwagon once again. The plus side for Fine Gael is that Fianna Fail is still weak overall, and they can remind the electorate at every opportunity of who they blame for the whole mess.

The centre remains the dominant position in Irish politics. The absolute centre is the gap Fianna Fail will seek to fill putting Fine Gael to the right and Labour to its left. With Labour needing to watch the growing consolidation of Sinn Fein on the hard left this task may now be easier. The question is does Fianna Fail still have enough fight in its weakened state to take the battle to Fine Gael which is undoubtedly the master of all it surveys….for now.

Johnny Fallon is a political consutlant