The festive period is behind us and already people’s thoughts are turning to what the political year ahead will bring, and already we have drama in the North and the usual post-Christmas crisis in the hospitals.
After the seismic shocks of 2016, Insider would be very brave (or foolish! ) to make many definitive predictions for 2017, so instead he proposes to consider more generally some of the matters that will likely be to the fore. To start, Insider will turn to three big global issues that loom large – Brexit, Trump, and Europe.
Brexit and The Donald
It has become something of a cliché but Brexit is the sole biggest issue facing Ireland. The issues and difficulties are well versed at this stage, but the big question is how the Government responds to them. In this regard, its task has not been made easy by the British government’s muddled response and conflicting signals.
What worries Insider however is the rather docile manner in which the Government has rowed in behind the European line and has steadfastly refused to push Ireland’s case (publicly at least ) in any significant manner. Insider is also alarmed by suggestions from Commissioner Phil Hogan that Ireland avoid aligning itself with the UK and sticks staunchly by Brussels.
Insider is not suggesting anything as radical as following Britain out of the EU, but would much rather the State took a flexible, independent, approach, aligning itself with the many, but not too closely with any. Unfortunately the Irish political class – with only a few exceptions - has been completely blinded by loyalty to the EU over the years and is unable to think outside the box.
Staying with the EU, elections loom in some key European countries and, following last year’s shocks, nobody is willing to discount anything. An unlikely win for Marine Le Pen in France, a breakthrough for Gert Wilders in The Netherlands, or for AFD in Germany would make things very difficult at EU level. Likewise there is great uncertainty as ever in Italy. This further emphasises the folly of Ireland taking sides in the Brexit battle.
Then there is the matter of Donald Trump taking office next week. This is the most intriguing development of all. Trump is unlikely to be a conventional Republican president – both in the campaign and during the transition period he has been as dismissive of some of their sacred cows as of those of the Democrats.
Optimists see an opportunity for a thawing of US-Russia relations and the possibility of an outsider breaking the gridlock in Washington. Pessimists see an inexperienced, volatile, figure who will get embroiled in confrontation and divide the US further. How he follows through on some of his more contentious campaign pledges – addressing the impracticality of some while also staying in tune with his base – will be key.
While the state of the health services is a constant in Irish political debate, there are a couple of issues that are likely to be particularly prevalent during 2017. As was the case during 2016 housing – in the form of homelessness, pressures in the rental market, difficulties for first-time buyers in accessing the market, and the general under-supply of housing in key areas - is likely to be to the fore.
While this is a complex area for the Government, two key parameters are likely to determine the public’s view of its performance in this area – the success, or otherwise of the ‘help to buy’ scheme introduced in the recent Budget and the scale of homelessness visible on the streets.
The end of 2016 saw a number of standoffs between public sector workers and the Government. These are likely to have been the opening skirmishes in a battle that will come to the fore during 2017, as public sector workers in particular seek restoration of some of the cuts enforced during austerity, and the Government seeks to retain control of the public finances, while also avoiding industrial action that would impact on key public services. Expect much debate on these matters during 2017.
The general economic picture will form a backdrop to all of this. In that regard it is difficult to gauge the mood music. On one level the statistics are promising – unemployment continuing to fall, the tax take generally exceeding targets, and some signs that the pattern of emigration has reversed – albeit with a range of challenges such as regional imbalance and lack of rises in income still prevalent.
On the other hand, there is still a sense of great unease as the impact of some of the global issues Insider touched on above, creates a degree of uncertainty. The Government would love to be able to draw a line and consign the ‘austerity era’ to history, but just as it appeared it could do so, these uncertainties emerged, which bear an eerie resemblance to the dark days of 2008.
FF, FG, and Independents
In terms of political combat, each of the major players has a lot at stake. Insider feels FF and FG have a lot to prove and that both will be incentivised not to collapse the present arrangement. It is therefore the dynamic between FG and the Independents that will determine the Government’s survival prospects.
In addition to surviving the year, FG will want to illustrate it can make this Government work and take key decisions, after a slow start and period of inertia in 2016. FG will also be keen to press home its advantage on economic performance, an advantage it squandered during last year’s election campaign.
It will also be keen to establish itself as the major party of Government – this time last year it looked as if it had wrestled the ‘natural party of government’ title from FF but within months the sense that ‘FF is running the State again’ had set in. No wonder the FG troops were buoyed by Simon Coveney playing hardball with FF before Christmas over the new rent controls.
For Independent-watchers, it promises to be a fun year. For those in Government, the need to ‘make it work and make it last’ will be to the fore. Insider notes however that Independents are extremely conscious of a need to distinguish themselves from FG, and not fall into the trap Labour and others have fallen into in the past. This is understandable, but Insider would caution them against crossing the line and reaching a point where the electorate sees too much gamesmanship and turns on them in frustration.
Then there are the non-government Independents. It has somewhat escaped many commentators’ attention, but they are in a very invidious position. They have no involvement in government, but are potentially in line to be tarnished with the same brush if the public turns on the Independents in Government. Expect a multi-faceted differentiation strategy to be pursued by a variety of Independents during 2017 then!
While FF had a good run of form during 2016, it still has the problem in that it trails FG on the economic question. Furthermore, it still does not resemble a party ready for government, and there is a sense that much of its policies are being made up as they go along. The party will be focusing on changing this image and on developing a more coherent approach.
FF is also weak among key sectors of the electorate. Its ‘Dublin problem’ has been well recited at this point but it also has a particular problem among a sector of the electorate that might be described as well-educated, reasonably well-off, young to middle-aged, urbanites. This is illustrated starkly by the lack of progress the party has made in places such as Galway city. For as long as this remains unaddressed, FF will not be in the hunt for a second seat in Galway West.
Sinn Féin and Labour
Labour is at the stage FF was at in 2011. Much of its focus is on keeping the head down and on reviewing and renewing internal structures and rallying the party membership. After a bruising spell in government, regaining the confidence of the electorate will take time. Insider feels this will be a two-election recovery. At the next election the party’s aim needs not be sweeping gains, but rather to establish itself clearly as the main party on the ‘soft left’ ahead of the Greens, Social Democrats, and others. This would then at least give it the platform to make a full recovery in the following election.
Insider senses however that the party has fallen into the trap of defending its record in government. No matter how much it feels it is in the right, that debate is over and Labour needs to dust itself down and move on.
For SF much of the focus will be on developing candidates in constituencies such as Galway West and Mayo where they went close, but missed out last time. SF has traditionally relied on the ground game to build further support – at this stage though the party is at a level where such a strategy has diminishing returns. It now needs to compete with the other parties in the ‘air war’.
The main question is, 'Is SF serious about contending for government?'In this regard the way things play out in Northern Ireland in the coming months and SF’s role in it, will be closely watched and have a key influence. Also, the decision by Martin McGuinness to withdraw from frontline politics will also bring the whole matter of the position of Gerry Adams to the fore again.