With the phoney war finally over, and the General Election upon us, the election and its aftermath is now the only thing occupying the minds of politicians and political anoraks. However it is by no means the only thing that should interest us.
What then can we expect from, and what should we look out for, in 2020 the political year? First, you probably have to go back to 1997 for the last occasion on which the outcome of a General Election - at least in terms of who would lead the next government - was so unpredictable.
With the two main parties seemingly evenly matched, and with an abundance of other parties and groupings in the field, there is no clear favourite, and if the result is as inconclusive as the 2016 election, it make take weeks to put together a government afterwards.
In 2011, Insider remarked that FF was about as popular as the Black and Tans – little did anyone expect FG to have its own problems in this regard ahead of this contest! On a more serious note, some of the sparring is predicable. Expect FG to call into question FF's record on economic management with many references to the economic crash of 10 years ago. Expect FF to retort that it has acted responsibly over the past four years in facilitating the Government, and to question why FG was willing to accept this support if FF was not to be trusted.
'With both FF and FG ruling out coalition with SF, putting together a majority government will be a challenge'
Expect SF to criticise both parties - FG for failing to tackle the key issues and FF for acquiescing with it. FG will try to claim the credit for its management of Brexit and to cite the FF team’s lack of experience, only to be met by FF counter-claims that a jaded FG has no answer to the crises in health and housing. The Greens meanwhile will try to put climate change centre-stage and the bigger parties will try to simultaneously steal their clothes while also trying to assuage the concerns of some of voters in rural areas in particular regarding the Green agenda.
The rural and gene pool independents will major on a narrative of neglect of rural Ireland and they, together with left-wing independents, may tap into a feeling that the major parties are detached from the concerns of ordinary voters, with perhaps a lighter form of some of the populism we have seen in other parts of the globe. As Insider put it to one contender last week, the vote in provincial Ireland in particular will be split between 'Eff Eff, Eff Gee and Eff You!'
Possibilities for government formation are myriad but the focus to date has been on two broad scenarios. One is a very inconclusive result that would result in another confidence and supply arrangement between FF and FG. The second is some variation of a ‘Triple Left Alliance’ involving some or all of Labour, the Greens, and the Social Democrats joining forces to provide a coalition partner for FF or FG. Many feel that, even in the first scenario, some elements of the TLA, in particular the Greens, are likely to join government anyway along with some independents.
'Could Catherine Connolly regret not running a candidate for her old council seat last May, potentially facilitating the rise of Cllr Pauline O’Reilly of the Greens?'
With both FF and FG ruling out coalition with SF, putting together a majority government will be a challenge. There will be many variables at play but Insider would highlight a few key factors. Might an election heavily focused on the FF v FG battle give those parties a boost to the detriment of the rest? Can either FF or FG emerge with a clear lead over the other, thereby being that bit closer to the magic 80 seats? Will the TLA make gains at the expense of SF and left-wing Independents? Post-election, will the TLA be willing to co-operate and participate in government? Likewise, what will the appetite for government be like among Independents?
Galway a microcosm?
Locally, we can expect some of this to play out as well. It is commonplace to hear forecasts of little change across the three Galway constituencies but there are many twists and turns in the road ahead. We have five Independent TDs across the three constituencies – will they all return or might FF or FG pose a threat to some of their ‘gene poolers’? Could Catherine Connolly regret not running a candidate for her old council seat last May, potentially facilitating the rise of Cllr Pauline O’Reilly [pictured above] of the Greens? Could the Greens also make inroads into the FG vote in Galway West, potentially disturbing the fine margins which allowed FG take two seats on less than 24 per cent of the vote in 2016, and maybe let FF in for a gain?
While the theme of the campaign may be largely predictable at this stage, there is much about the outcome that is not. And, at the end of it all, it is worth reminding ourselves that it took 70 days to put together a government last time out, so we may be doing well to have a government by Easter at the end of it all!
Looking beyond the election, Brexit will again loom large. While the first phase will finally be complete with the UK’s formal exit on January 31, we can expect more drama as Boris Johnson attempts to negotiate a trade deal, among other things, with an EU team that will see Commissioner Phil Hogan centre-stage.
Over Christmas, we saw both sides get bogged down on matters of process, such as whether the UK will seek an extension to the transition period. Insider would much rather see both sides settle down to the task in hand. A deal that is mutually beneficial to both sides is doable, but it will require some give and take on the part of both.
'It is hoped that closer co-operation on Northern Ireland between the two governments may help mend the Irish-British relationship, which has become strained due to Brexit'
There has been some hope (wishful thinking? ) that Mr Johnson would pivot towards a ‘soft Brexit’ after his election victory. Insider would note some post-referendum remarks by Dominic Cummings that a key part of Vote Leave’s strategy was to sideline some of the more fundamentalist or ideologically driven Eurosceptic Tory MPs, so that might be a hint. Nevertheless, Boris does have some red lines that cannot be crossed and it will take flexibility and imagination on the part of the EU, as well as the UK, to strike a deal that will be mutually beneficial.
Taking a broader look, Insider has regularly noted that the future direction of the EU, and Ireland’s role in it, is something that gets little attention here. There is a danger that after the whole drama of Brexit and the dreadful image that Euroscepticism now has in this country, an element of group-think may set in that sees any questioning of the EU as heresy. In reality there are significant challenges facing the EU that may require some radical actions in the coming years, the implications of which and the extent to which Ireland is willing to participate in them being something that needs to be discussed honesty.
The restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland after a three-and-a-half year hiatus is to be welcomed. Coming on top of Brexit, there was a dangerous sense of drift in Northern society. The election results in December – a loss of seats for the DUP, a notable drop in vote share for SF despite avoiding any net seat losses and, advances for the Alliance and SDLP – were a clear call for the politicians to get their act together, and for once it was heeded.
'Ironically for someone whose election was unconventional, Trump's fortunes are still partly tied to the conventional issues of economic performance'
While an outright return to violence has thankfully been avoided, the last few years have seen a significant breakdown in trust between the communities, improvements of which will take some considerable amount of time. The restoration of power-sharing has created a feel-good factor, and on a more general level it is hoped that closer co-operation on Northern Ireland between the two governments may help mend the Irish-British relationship, which has become a little strained due to Brexit.
The General Election will provide much of the excitement at the beginning of the year but towards the end of 2020 all eyes will be on the USA. Can Donald Trump win re-election? From speaking to relatives and friends Stateside, Insider would give him at least a sporting chance. The view seems to be that, for all his flaws, he has looked after American interests. The situation is fluid however and, ironically for someone whose election was unconventional, his fortunes are still partly tied to the conventional issues of economic performance.
For the Democrats there is also the concern that, maybe a little like the British Labour Party, its vote is now too heavily concentrated in a number of urban centres with the result that the Democrats are simply adding to their margin of victory in those place and losing some of the key marginal States. Prior to the election itself, we will have the Democratic primaries in February, a month later than normal (to facilitate Irish observers no doubt! ). Former vice president Joe Biden is well-known and popular in Ireland, but it is a very open race. Insider would not call the outcome of either the primaries or election proper at this stage.
Plenty then to keep political observers engaged this year – and these are only the ‘known unknowns’!