As the Dáil heads off on its summer holidays there is much to contemplate after a busy and interesting first half to 2018, with the promise of more tumult to come in the autumn.
There is much to ponder, but in reviewing and assessing the state of play, Insider would highlight Brexit, the tale of two referenda, the ongoing twin intractable issues of health and housing, the State's economic fortunes, and the backdrop of ongoing election speculation.
Brexit – nothing moving?
In the months leading up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, Insider warned it had the potential to have serious consequences and could be a game-changer for Ireland in a bad way. What has transpired has been much worse than feared.
Perhaps the best way of summing it up is as a 'movable feast with nothing moving'. We have had all manner of interesting (or crazy! ) suggestions made, all amid the backdrop of domestic political chaos in the UK, as we are again seeing this week. Looking at the bigger picture, the divergence of views at Westminster makes it very difficult to see any deal getting parliamentary approval, meaning the nightmare ‘no deal’ scenario is still very much on the cards.
From an Irish perspective, there are two big headaches. First, contrary to all promises the border issue appears to remain unresolved ahead of the crunch phase of the talks where fears abound that Ireland could become a pawn in negotiations. Second, the prospect of a trade agreement between the EU and the UK (crucial for Ireland ) is up in the air.
Many would have seen parallels between Brexit in the UK and the issue of abortion in Ireland - two sides with polar opposite views refusing to see each other’s viewpoint and a generally nasty undercurrent to the debate. Many people were dreading the referendum debate. Yet what transpired was nowhere as nasty as feared and the outcome was far more clearcut than expected.
Insider found that while it was undoubtedly a sensitive issue, people engaged with it and with the different viewpoints, although this was more pronounced in private settings than in the public debates. Unlike other referenda, Insider never felt the outcome was in doubt, but was still a little surprised at the margin; ultimately though there was a clear mood for change, which creates an irresistible momentum of its own, and made retaining the Eighth Amendment a non-runner. The emphatic result did however paint a picture of politicians being behind the public yet again.
Insider supported repeal and was pleased with the outcome. The politicians now have the flexibility to carefully consider legislation. Insider broadly supports the Government’s draft legislation – with one significant exception. The Oireachtas committee recommended that disability should not be grounds for abortion as this would send out the wrong signal about how we view people with disabilities – this is virtue signalling of the worst kind.
Parents who receive a diagnosis that their child will be born with severe disability and little quality of life are in a very difficult position, having to consider what the best is for that child as well as the rest of the family. In many cases they may feel that an abortion is the most humane course to take. The Citizens’ Assembly voted heavily to allow abortion in these cases and polls indicate there is broad public support for it. Politicians are again behind the public on this one. With the amendment repealed, the legislative process allows them the opportunity to play catch-up; they should grasp it.
The housing and health crisis
Successfully getting the Eighth Amendment repealed after less than a year in office adds to the image of Taoiseach Leo Varadkaar as someone who gets things done. Unfortunately, the evidence to back this up is not so strong in other areas, principally housing.
There are several facets to this housing crisis. The shocking level of homelessness has understandably grabbed the headlines these past few years. More generally there is a sense of hopelessness among the younger generation about ever owning their own home, or even moving out of their parents’ homes as rents reach exorbitant levels. We have seen this play out in other countries, including the UK, leading to inter-generational conflict and a sense of a generation getting ‘screwed’. This is real danger territory for the young, can-do Taoiseach.
Insider wonders if the public are almost immune at this stage to talk of hospital waiting lists and patients on trollies – at least until they or their loved ones are impacted. Still the Government will be nervous and, as these things normally get worse in winter time, this may increase temptations to call an autumn election.
More dramatically in health, we have seen a crisis of confidence in the cervical cancer screening programme. Serious questions have been asked and need to be answered. However, the reaction has been excessive in many cases and could have the impact of doing more harm than good. This was a failure at a political as much as at a medical level, a lack of political leadership prolonging and exacerbating the crisis. The whole area of screening and vaccination for cervical cancer has generated some irresponsible comment in recent years from people who should know better, including a bishop and a government minister, and this was more of it.
Economic upswing and FG v FF
The recent rise of populism globally has caused many to question the validity of the old Bill Clinton maxim that "It’s the economy, stupid." Emotion is now as important. However, the economy still matters, and the Government will by buoyed by strong employment growth, booming tax receipts, and solid consumer confidence. On the other hand, there is still a sense that people are cautious and a fear that the feel-good factor has not spread to all corners of the country.
This brings Insider on nicely to the state of the parties. The battle of the ‘Big Two’ is pivotal to the outcome of the next election and here we are seeing some interesting contrasts. A strong economy should benefit FG, bolstering the party’s image as solid on the economy while also playing to the ‘stability’ argument. FF will want to avoid unfavourable contrast with the pre-2011 crash but will hope that economic recovery will diminish support for smaller groupings and enable it to make gains. Expect it to continue to play the ‘fairness’ card.
The fallout from the abortion referendum is complex and worthy of an article of its own but Insider surmises that it has worked out rather better for FG than for FF. First, FF is seen as riven by divisions and most of its TDs (but not its shrewd leader ) backed the wrong horse. Second, as the picture painted by the RTÉ exit poll illustrates FF now has an image (rightly or wrongly ) as appealing to ‘old Ireland’ and indeed an ‘older Ireland’ with support concentrated in the upper age brackets. Social issues may not determine elections, but brands evolve and FF risks being seen as a party that more generally ‘can’t do change’.
FG enjoys a clear lead among younger, upwardly mobile, urban voters (albeit much of this support is soft ) and it is doubtful if FF can get a sufficient advantage elsewhere to reign them in. This augurs well for FG to maintain their advantage over FF in Galway West while making the other two Galway constituencies must-wins for FF.
The centre-left contest?
Labour must have mixed feelings about the referendum result; no party has been more steadfast in its opposition to the Eighth Amendment yet it now watches as its long-time former coalition partner (a traditionally conservative party ) picks up the credit. Overall the party is stuck in a rut; it will rely on big personalities in individual constituencies to win back seats but against that it is likely to suffer from retirements among its sitting TDs. Its main objective will be to clearly reinforce itself as the third party of the left, ahead of the Social Democrats and Greens.
Sinn Féin has become the dominant force on the left but it is hard to gauge where exactly it is at. Mary Lou McDonald has received positive reviews and the party has received a bounce in some opinion polls. However, the RTÉ exit poll of actual voters suggests SF may not make much advance on its 2016 General Election performance. While FG and SF may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, Insider does see some risk for SF too if the image of Leo Varadkaar as a ‘can-do’ operator takes hold as it contrasts with the never-ending stalemate in the North. Opportunities and dangers abound for SF in the coming months.
The smaller parties are struggling to make an impact and risk getting squeezed by the bigger parties. This is an even bigger fear for Independents; there does seem to be a swing back towards the bigger parties and Independents seem unlikely to enjoy the surge of support next time out, although in individual constituencies some high-profile Independents could still do well.
Despite all the speculation, Insider thinks an autumn general election is unlikely; the Government simply has too much on its plate with the big EU summit in October and the requirement to get the Budget passed. However, the shadow-boxing will be well under way by the autumn and combined with those ‘big ticket’ items, not to mention further referenda, and maybe even a presidential election, it will be a hectic period. Insider’s advice is to make the most of the summer break!