A change in Taoiseach could be the first of many changes in 2022

‘The unknown unknowns will be the most interesting part of politics in 2022’

The volatile nature of politics is such that change for the big office holders may only ever be around the corner, but at the outset of 2022 we find ourselves in the unusual position of being guaranteed a change of Taoiseach this year, and this in turn may have a knock-on effect in other areas.

On 15 December 2022, Micheál Martin will hand the reins back to Leo Varadkar, making him the shortest serving Taoiseach in Irish history. His term to date having been ruined by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which at times has reduced him to the role of announcing new societal restrictions or lifting them, he will hope the worst of the pandemic is finally behind us and that his final year will present the opportunity to put some achievements on the board and leave a more lasting legacy.

The change in the Taoiseach’s office is likely to have a knock-on effect with a cabinet reshuffle. There is a loose agreement in place for Finance Minister, Paschal Donohoe, and Public Expenditure Minister, Michael McGrath, to swap roles, which leaves the prospect of a first FF Finance Minister in 12 years, and the first since the Cowen government was swept out of power in the midst of a financial and banking collapse.

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There is also expectation that the parties may swap the Justice and Attorney General portfolios; many are wondering if this will finally see Jim O’Callaghan promoted to the front ranks while others wait to see if Helen McEntee continues her ascent, and possibly get tested in an economic portfolio.

With FG having been in power for more than a decade, there is much speculation that Varadkar will take the opportunity to freshen up his team. What will this mean for Simon Coveney after a series of unforced errors, or for Simon Harris? Locally, much attention will focus on the prospects of Super-Junior Minister Hildegarde Naughten and whether she might move up or down.

FF tensions

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An even bigger unknown is what all of this means for Martin’s leadership of FF, a position he will by then have held for 12 years. Until recently, most observers felt he would call it a day, or be forced to do so, rather than step down to the role of Tánaiste. Persistent rumblings abounded of a deep unhappiness with him and a desire among backbenchers to see his leadership come to an end.

However, recent months have seen things settle down a little with FF’s ratings improving. While very few expect Martin to lead FF into the next election, there is a sense he may remain in the role of party leader for a period of time after stepping down as Taoiseach.

Pretenders to the crown

This will not stop pretenders to the crown positioning themselves for a leadership election which has the potential to destabilise the government. From this distance, it is difficult to forecast the outcome of such a contest but the frontrunners appear to be Michael McGrath, Jim O’Callaghan, and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien. This is a shortlist of two inexperienced ministers, and a third who, despite a high profile, has never served in office.

This possibly strengthens Martin’s case to remain in situ. McGrath might also feel that a period as Finance Minister will give him the opportunity to build his own profile and leave him best positioned when a vacancy does arise.

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Of course the background music of SF’s advancement will continue in 2022 with the next election now shaping up to be a keenly fought contest between SF on the one side and the status quo on the other. For SF though, there are more immediate concerns north of the border.

Change in the North?

Another certainty is that we will see an Assembly Election in Northern Ireland this year. This has the potential to be a very significant event and will be hotly fought. In 2017, amid the fallout from controversies over the failure to legislate for Irish language rights and Brexit, not to mention Arlene Foster comparing Nationalists to crocodiles, we saw Unionists lose their majority, Nationalists finish only one seat behind them, and SF coming to within one seat of the DUP as the largest party. Since then, we have seen Alliance surge.

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If these trends continue, there is a real prospect of a SF First Minister, but also a more diverse politics than the old Green v Orange taking hold over the next few years. This has the potential to be turbulent, with some Unionists stating that they will not accept a SF First Minister and threatening to veto the appointment. This debate within Unionism is dangerous for the DUP, which risks being outflanked on one side by the hardline TUV and on the other by the more moderate UUP and Alliance Party.

Brexit and the protocol

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One of the dynamics at play, and influencing all of this, is the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Insider thought this one was heading for a resolution of sorts, but the dramatic resignation of the Brexit Minister David Frost adds a real layer of uncertainty.

Does this make a deal less or more likely? You will hear arguments for both and Insider is genuinely torn. On the one hand, Frost’s obdurate stance and apparent love of conflict was a real obstacle to a deal, and his departure should help. On the flipside, regardless of who the Brexit Minister is, the Tory hardliners will have to be won over and sign up to any compromise, and it might be argued that Lord Frost was better placed to do that than most.

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Furthermore, the appointment of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to lead the negotiations could go either way. Does she try to strike a deal, thereby enhancing her CV and buttressing her claim to the party leadership, or does she dig her heels in with a view to impressing hardline backbenchers?

Insider’s sense is that the British government sees an opportunity to gain domestic political capital by extending the standoff with the EU, so the Protocol is likely to be a recurring issue, even if a resolution is reached.

It may be that, what we see over the coming months is the can being kicked down the road with neither a full resolution on the one hand, nor the British taking the nuclear option of invoking Article 16. This means the Irish government will have an ongoing challenge, trying to assuage Nationalist fears while also protecting the EU Single Market. 

Domestic challenges

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After a pre-Christmas scare with the emergence of the Omicron variant, there is some positivity in the air around government circles regarding the trajectory of the pandemic. That we look like getting through Christmas and January without having to resort to lockdown, together with a growing confidence about the efficacy of vaccines in taming the virus, has given the government a real boost in recent weeks.

The Government now feels that, two years on from the General Election, it may finally be able to focus on the key long-term issues such as health, housing, and climate change. The economy will also be in focus - in particular any lasting impact of the pandemic on certain sectors as financial supports are withdrawn - as will the impact over the next few years of changes to the international tax system which Ireland has signed up to.

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Another dark horse might be education, where the pandemic in throwing up a number of challenges. It has also shone light on a range of issues such as access to education, broadband access, and, an old chestnut, a desire to see reform of the Leaving Cert.

French election

Internationally, we have a number of elections to look forward to. Among the most keenly watched will be the French presidential election and the US midterm elections.

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In France, there are a number of big questions to be answered. Will President Emmanuel Macron, who skillfully navigated his way through the middle as an outsider for a surprise win in 2017, manage to win re-election? Will the far-right or populist candidates continue to prosper, or will their growth be halted? Could the far-right vote splinter to the detriment of Marine Le Pen? Might her attempts to win more centrist votes impact her popularity with her core audience?

And what of the more traditional centre-left and centre-right options? The former seem to be stuck in the doldrums, but the latter might have some hope with their new candidate, Valerie Pecresse.

US mid-terms

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In the US, the first midterm election for a new president tends to be horrendously difficult, and this seems set to be the case again this year. Republicans are hot favourites to regain the House of Representatives, although because of the split of seats up for re-election, Democrats might be in with a chance of retaining the Senate, which would be very important for any judicial appointments President Biden might wish to make.

More generally, the utter division that has been growing more entrenched in American politics over the past 30 years, with the two tribes retreating into their own camps, shows no sign of abating.

With the recent passing of former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, however, Insider will conclude by noting that it is the unknown unknowns that will be the most interesting part of politics in 2022!

 

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