That was some year

What a tumultuous political year it’s been! It began with a sense that despite much turmoil and insurgency across the globe voters would shy away from the radical choices and that something akin to the ‘status quo’ would prevail. It ended with Madonna with no sense of irony berating the President-elect of the USA for engaging in sensationalist acts and rhetoric in order to generate publicity.

When we look at the three seismic events that dominated political discourse in Ireland during 2016 – Brexit, the US presidential election and our own General Election – there seemed good cause at the outset for thinking ‘safety first’ would prevail. After all in the previous 18 months we had seen Scottish voters shy away from independence and a late swing returning the Tories to majority government in the UK.

The polls in late 2015 seemed to show movement towards FG that left the party in a good position heading into the General Election even if Labour looked doomed. In the UK the sense was that, even if very lukewarm at best towards the EU the British public would back their Prime Minister on the day while in the US the tendency of the Republican Party base to ultimately back their leadership’s choice would scupper Donald Trump’s hopes.

An awakening on the margins

On the face of it the three results – Britain embracing Euroscepticism, the US electing a Republican President, and Independents thriving and FF making a comeback in Ireland – are unremarkable. In order to pull off victory, the core vote did not suffice and a winning coalition had to be assembled. A number of themes were common to all three instances.

At the heart of all three was the willingness of people who felt they had nothing to lose to take a gamble and not revert to ‘head over heart’ as would traditionally be the case. Angry voters in industrial States opting for the controversial Mr Trump, working class communities across the UK turning on the EU and in Ireland voters in the regions, away from the Leinster House bubble, not buying the recovery and stability arguments and opting to elect a disparate set of candidates rather than electing a government.

Let’s have a closer look at all three.

The Irish refuse to comply

It is almost comical to look back at some of the headlines during last year’s festive period regarding the General Election, which was then imminent. While Labour were doomed, FG were organisationally streets ahead of the pack, in particular an ill-prepared FF. While losses were anticipated the improving economy and voters’ desire for stability would give them a good chance of re-election with the help of perhaps a few friendly Independents.

It must be acknowledged that there were dissenters from this analysis. Insider will also freely acknowledge that he expected a retreat to safety would see some variation of the outgoing government across the line and so is in no position to lecture others. He will however claim some credit for pointing out consistently these past two or three years that FG were very vulnerable in rural and provincial Ireland. The poor handling of flooding across the country last Christmas only served to reinforce this point. In a more general sense though this was a manifestation of the disconnect between the ‘elites’ and those ‘out in the country’ that was later to raise its head in the UK and US.

A disconnect

Quite simply the recovery message grated with people and created a sense of the little people being lectured to by the elites. It is small wonder that Sean Kyne – who bucked the trend somewhat to comfortably hold his Galway West seat – was so vocally livid afterwards. The long held sense that the economy is skewed towards three or four counties on the east coast other than a few exceptions (of which it should be noted Galway city is probably the standout ) is now felt more acutely than ever and resulted in people putting their faith in local politicians – be they FF, SF, Independent or indeed FG- rather than focus on the national question of electing a government. Once it became apparent late in the campaign that the government was not getting re-elected this trend accelerated. We ended up with no fewer than five Independents elected in the Galway constituencies.

A strange form of government

What we ended up with was unique in the Irish context, a government controlled by the Dáil rather than the other way around. We have had minority governments regularly in the past but never one that is utterly reliant on help from the opposition to get its programme enacted. It is still early days but politicians’ natural instinct for survival means that they will adapt to the circumstances and after a rocky start Insider suspects it may last longer than anticipated – but still wouldn’t bet against 2017 being another election year.

The Brits revolt

In a quiet year across the Irish Sea the recently re-elected British Prime Minister resigned, the country got its second woman Prime Minister and half of the senior cabinet members were unceremoniously fired. Oh yes, and they voted to leave the EU.

Taking a leap of faith

Of all the things that happened in 2016 this was the one that most illustrated the mood of ‘we have nothing to lose’ and going with ‘heart over head’. It appeared that the ‘leave’ camp had not done enough – critically they were not above 50% among decided voters and generally the late deciders break towards the status quo. On the day though people decided to take the leap and vote out. Even this week Insider has seen polling numbers that indicate the British public do not regret their choice even if they feel there will be pain in the short term.

Let nobody think this was entirely an anti-establishment revolt. After all when you look at the core of the ‘leave’ campaign – the bulk of the Tory Party, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail – it is the epitome of the British establishment. Nevertheless they successfully rallied support among people who were disenchanted with and disengaged from the establishment – perhaps summed up by Michael Gove’s remark that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.

A need to look in the mirror?

The aftermath has, to put it mildly, been turbulent. What has struck Insider though is that among those who are disappointed with the outcome – and the reaction from some quarters in this country has been bordering on the hysterical – there has been an effort to blame everyone and everything bar the EU itself. This was a point FF’s Dara Calleary made in his contribution to the Dáil debate on the matter. The EU has been badly damaged in recent years – it performed dreadfully during the financial crisis, has botched the handling of the refugee crisis and has been impotent, irrelevant even in the context of the foreign policy challenges facing the globe. It badly needs to reform and renew.

Challenges for Ireland

While some of the Irish reaction has been ill-informed, the consensus that this is a serious problem for Ireland is one that Insider with which would agree. The next few years will create a real challenge for the country as it tries to juggle its European commitments and its closeness on so many levels to the UK. Unpalatable choices will have to be made and a potentially contentious referendum will likely be required at the end of it to gain approval for whatever is agreed.

America - The Celtic Takeover

November brought the greatest sensation of them all. The Bonny Scot and the man from the Banner upset the applecart in some style to upend Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. The Celtic Takeover is under way! Admittedly Donald Trump being the son of a Gaelic speaker from the Western Isles and Mike Pence’s very strong links with Doonbeg have been rather overshadowed by other aspects of the campaign!

One point Insider will make is that Mr Trump’s most outstanding success was not in winning the election itself but in getting the Republican nomination. This is a party that pretty much always chooses the ‘next in line’ – a respected senator, a long-serving governor, a Vice-President or the son of a former President – and does not lend itself to insurgents. When Mr Trump lost the Iowa caucuses in January, despite leading in the polls it looked as if history would repeat itself. Over the coming weeks and months however he simply blew away the field of 16 rivals as people refused to take direction from their betters.

Among those caught up in the carnage was Jeb Bush. Going back to 1980 when Jeb’s father was elected Vice-President, two families have dominated American politics. In November Mr Trump completed the double by inflicting a piercing wound on the Clintons.

Most of the focus during the campaign has been on Mr Trump’s more outlandish statements and controversial style of campaigning. People therefore largely missed the point that Mrs Clinton was a highly flawed candidate. The charge sheet against her is long and, far from being the most qualified person ever to run for the office Insider would see hers as a long record of incompetence, scandal and controversy. In the end Mr Trump looked rather more palatable than he should.

It is one hell of a gamble though and to say that the next four years will be interesting is some understatement!

Indeed, looking at the year as a whole Insider is reminded of the old adage ‘may you live in interesting times’. He will also caution that 2017 promises to bring even more uncertainty and turmoil. It is best then to put these thoughts to the back of our minds and make the most of the festive period. Happy Christmas!

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