As we approach the midpoint of 2021, and with the summer Dáil recess approaching, now is a good time to take stock of the political year to date.
As has been the case pretty much ever since the 2020 General Election, matters have been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent weeks have seen some light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine programme building up a head of steam and the benefits beginning to be seen in hospital numbers collapsing and restrictions beginning to ease.
That is not to say the Government is out of the woods yet. In addition to the trajectory of the pandemic, the coming months will see an intense debate on the rights and wrongs of the approaches taken. While the Government will have been pleased to see that 70 per cent of voters are currently satisfied with its approach according to last week’s Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll - up from 45 per cent in February - the atmosphere around Covid-19 is febrile and the public mood is liable to swing wildly.
Housing: back on the agenda
Perhaps the most encouraging sign regarding the pandemic is that recent weeks have seen other issues return to the headlines – although the Government may be forgiven for having mixed emotions in this regard.
The recent controversies around the role of international funds and the housing crisis more generally offers a taste of the difficulties that face Minister Darragh O’Brien over the next few years. This became sidelined with Covid-19 over the past year, but it has never really gone away and arguably has become more acute in that time.
As Insider has consistently noted in the past, housing is a key dividing line across western society; the feeling of a younger generation being ‘locked out’ and of the system being ‘rigged against them’ reduces the stake they feel they have in society. This may be particularly acutely felt in Ireland with its tradition of home ownership, the importance of property in the national psyche, and the prominence of land and various disputes around it in Irish history.
In terms of party political support, this has knock-on ramifications with FF and FG in real danger of alienating an entire generation and with SF making inroads, not only among this demographic, but also among some traditional FF and FG supporters frustrated at seeing their children unable to buy a home. Longer term, if this crisis persists, Insider wonders if we might see a section of the electorate becoming disenchanted with the political system as a whole, something that brings its own dangers.
There badly needs to be a ramping up of supply, but ironically, the various pandemic-related restrictions introduced at various stages in 2020 and 2021 will have hampered this in the short term, even though the Government did strive to prioritise the sector, along with schools, when it came to reopening.
Health: a tsunami of cases?
Another area that will likely see a knock-on effect from the pandemic is the healthcare system itself. The past year has seen much non-Covid procedures postponed with a resulting backlog of cases. There is also a concern that a large number of serious illnesses, such as cancers and coronary illnesses, may have gone undiagnosed with potentially tragic consequences.
Another issue that has gone a little under the radar, but will surely come to the fore is whether the large increase in health expenditure over the past 15 months can or should be sustained. This may be a lively debate.
Minister Stephen Donnelly has enjoyed a slight respite over the past few months as the vaccine programme has rolled out but he will surely find himself back in the firing line by the autumn. The Health Ministry is a poisoned chalice at the best of times but for obvious reasons his first year in the job has been especially difficult. How he navigates his second year in the post will be key in determining how he fares in the midterm reshuffle expected when Leo Varadkaar replaces Micheál Martin in the Taoiseach’s chair in December 2022.
Economy and jobs
In March 2020, Insider remarked that while this pandemic would initially be a health crisis, its longer term impact might come in the form of an economic crisis. While the various supports introduced by the Government have helped to mitigate the pain in that regard, this has created something of a false sense of security.
We are currently in something of a lull before the real impact is felt as the economy and society reopens. How many businesses will fall by the wayside and how many people who are ‘temporarily’ on the PUP will find themselves out of work? The question of the increased expenditure on healthcare and on the various supports and how maintainable such increased expenditure is in the long run is likely to become a key debating point.
Recent weeks have also seen the issue of international tax reform come to the fore and this has potentially significant implications for Ireland’s economic model. As a result, the coming year will be challenging for Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe, and the Public Expenditure Minister, Michael McGrath.
One dynamic that is a little overlooked however is that these two Ministers are also scheduled to swap portfolios when the Taoiseach’s office rotates at the end of next year. What might the political implications be in terms of the FF/FG dynamic? It is likely that the worst of the economic fallout might actually be felt most acutely in 2023/24 so, in the eyes of the public, will it be a case of a FF Finance Minister presiding over tough budgets and tax increases, or a FG Public Expenditure Minister imposing spending cuts?
Brexit and Northern unease
Insider has been bewildered by the happenings at Stormont, or more particularly in the DUP this past month. If they weren’t so serious, they would be farcical. It is evident that Unionism is going through a serious crisis but the implications for Northern Ireland as a whole are serious. The last thing that is needed now, with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and Brexit, is for the Executive to collapse.
Insider was relieved last week when this appeared to have been averted but such relief was short-lived and avoiding such a collapse may now be difficult as, notwithstanding the view that Jeffrey Donaldson [pictured below] is a cooler head less prone to taking reckless gambles, the reality is that any hint of the compromises required is likely to see a decapitation on the part of the party’s hardliners.
Of course, a key factor in all of this is the Northern Ireland Protocol and ongoing fallout from Brexit. While we may be in some sort of ‘cooling off’ period, the tensions between the UK and EU in that regard have not gone away and reaching agreement is proving difficult, notwithstanding the assistance offered by the US recently.
The state of the parties
Last week’s Irish Times poll offered a glimpse of the state of the parties. It was a bit of a mixed bag, which most of the parties can take some sort of positives from.
For SF, the party has moved into a four-point lead and is maintaining and adding to the support it won at last year’s General Election; it is well-placed to make gains, in particular as issues such as housing take centre stage. On the other hand, the Government parties continue to enjoy a combined support of more than 50 per cent, also slightly up on that election performance.
FF, after a dreadful year, has seen something of a rebound to 20 per dent - still an appalling result historically, but at least indicative that most of the support lost since that election has been recovered. FG have shed a few points and may be somewhat peeved that having enjoyed something of a ‘pandemic bounce’, which it broadly maintained even during the more challenging periods, is not getting the ‘vaccine bounce’ which seems to have gone to FF.
Green Party Galway senator, Pauline O’Reilly.
So far the Greens seem to have avoided a backlash for its role in Government but Insider would caution that in 2007, after entering government with the PDs and FF, its support initially seemed to be holding up before imploding at the local and European elections in 2009.
In a sense, the key point is that the poll confirms something of a trend over the past year of the main parties dominating at the expense of the smaller parties and Independents. Insider however would question if this would necessarily be replicated in a General Election.
A key by-election?
We have something of a taster in that regard to look forward to with an unexpected by-election in Dublin Bay South following the resignation of former Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. This is not a bellwether constituency and will not have a huge bearing on Dáil arithmetic. However, with a high profile field it will provoke some interest.
Are we likely to see the FG v SF narrative play out with James Geoghegan and Lynn Boylan perceived as frontrunners? Could both be dislodged by a blindside run from Ivana Bacik on behalf of Labour, a party about whom we have not heard much recently?
In conclusion, Insider would warn that politics has been in something of a deep freeze over the past year, and that polls, and even the by-election result should not be over-hyped as the re-emergence of the big policy issues are likely to shape the next few years. Here’s hoping after an enjoyable summer we get that return to normality!