Monday 23 September 2019

Nicola Anderson: 'Brexit and Repeal will put 2018 firmly in the history books'

Nicola Anderson looks back on events shaping the political landscape this year

Referendum: A woman kneeling in front of a mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin as votes
were counted in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment in May. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Referendum: A woman kneeling in front of a mural of Savita Halappanavar in Dublin as votes were counted in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment in May. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

When historians write about 2018, said the Taoiseach, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment will be the "most momentous event of the year".

On one level he was correct - the referendum will indeed make the history books. But could the momentousness of the vote be overshadowed by the chaotic unravelling of another jurisdiction's democratic process in terms of historic impact?

Was 2018, perhaps, the year when Brexit cast the die for our immediate future - and we realised there was precious little we could do about it? Or is it the year that set in train events that might lead to a united Ireland after almost a century of partition?

Certain not to command many paragraphs in the history books, on the other hand, was the rather unedifying presidential election.

This was the first time since the 1966 election that an incumbent president faced a contest for a second term, and the first occasion on which an incumbent president nominating themselves for re-election had been opposed. But from the outset it was obvious the incumbent was going to be a shoo-in for a second term.

The campaign was unremarkable until October when Peter Casey weighed in with controversial comments on Travellers, claiming they should not be recognised as an ethnic minority because they are "basically people camping in someone else's land".

British PM Theresa May with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
British PM Theresa May with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mr Casey ultimately ended up second, but Michael D Higgins was re-elected with the largest majority in the history of the State.

Back in February, Tánaiste Simon Coveney revealed he was in favour of repealing the controversial Eighth Amendment to allow Ireland's abortion laws to be changed, but was against unrestricted terminations. Then it was announced he would not actively seek to win over undecided Fine Gael TDs to join his opposition to proposals to allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

In the week before the referendum, the #Hometovote hashtag began trending on Twitter as Irish people living overseas began to return.

But if the vote came down to one factor, it was probably the personal, heartbreaking stories of those women forced to make the long, lonely journey to the UK to terminate in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.

Race for the Áras: President Michael D Higgins at the launch of his re-election campaign in Dublin in September. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Race for the Áras: President Michael D Higgins at the launch of his re-election campaign in Dublin in September. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

It was a decision made with difficulty by most. This was not a cause for celebrations, many stressed - but it was seen as a sign of our growing maturity as a society in not wishing to sweep our national troubles under the carpet or foist them on another country.

But as it turned out, there was neither an urban/rural divide nor a male/female divide. There was no class divide or even an age divide.

On May 25, 66.4pc of voters in Ireland said Yes. And yet a full 100 days after the country voted, nothing had really changed because of legal challenges that stalled legislation.

In July, High Court President Mr Justice Peter Kelly dismissed two attempts to challenge the Eighth Amendment referendum result.

Abortion officially became legal here after the President signed the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill into law on December 20.

Providing a clear timeline of what happened in the Brexit process is, to say the least, not so easy.

After virtually an entire year of bluster and obfuscation, back-tracking and denial in Britain, hard reality began to bite towards the end of the year.

By contrast, our Government appeared a bastion of common sense. In the month of May, we saw the launch of a €300m loan scheme for Irish businesses likely to be impacted by Brexit.

The Government maintained its stance that it wanted the closest relationship possible between Britain and Ireland in a post-Brexit world - and no hard Border.

On November 14, the European Commission and UK reached agreement on the Withdrawal Agreement.

It included a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a legally operational backstop to ensure there would be no hard Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, commitments to protect rights under the Good Friday Agreement, as well as an agreement that people in the North would continue to enjoy EU citizenship rights.

It was a win for Ireland and Northern Ireland alike.

But that's when trouble really began to brew. The DUP insisted it did not want to be treated any differently to the rest of the UK, while businesses and farmers in the North told a different tale.

The Commons vote to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement was suddenly pulled by Theresa May because she feared she would lose.

From there, things went on a rapid downward spiral.

By mid-December, the Government revealed details of its contingency plan in the event of no deal, revealing that medicines had been stockpiled. There were no easy ways of avoiding Border infrastructure, the Tánaiste warned.

By March next, our future will be much more clear - for better or for worse.

Irish Independent

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