The first six months of 2017 have been hectic to say the least - a change of taoiseach, arguments which have severely tested the stability of the government and brought us to the brink of a general election more than once, a UK general election, and the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.
New Taoiseach – game changer?
There has been a sense in FG in recent times Enda Kenny had been holding the party back and in particular that he was 'damaged goods’ after the Election 2016 result. There was also a sense that incessant speculation about the timing of his departure distracted the Government and lead to paralysis.
On the face of it then, the transition to Leo Varadkar has the potential to be a game changer. While acknowledging that we are only a month into his reign, Insider does not sense that this is turning out to be the case and the overriding sense is of things carrying along as normal. A rather conservative ministerial reshuffle – notwithstanding that all of the positions at the top of the tree changed hands – with very few new faces has been followed by very few new announcements on policy or direction with the Government instead getting bogged down in rows over procedural fringe issues such as the new Judges Bill.
At the risk of sending the organisers of the various summer schools into a frenzy of excitement, Insider suggests we might see the new Taoiseach use the recess period to set out his stall. While accepting there is a fine line between shaking things up and earning a reputation for recklessness by going too far (a lesson Albert Reynolds learned in 1992 ) Taoiseach Varadkar does not to want to repeat the errors of Brian Cowen in 2008 when a sense of inertia quickly set in over the summer months.
The UK and EU
Of course the predominant issue on the Government’s agenda is Brexit. Insider is as concerned as ever on this front. A full four months after Article 50 was invoked by Prime Minister Theresa May nothing really has happened or appears to be happening, bar an agreement by both sides that, to quote an old TV advert it ‘It’s good to talk’!
The British Election result ensures there is no clear agreement with Parliament over the approach the British government should take and a real risk that the it will not be able to get the final deal through Parliament, leaving Britain to crash out of the EU without a deal - the ultimate nightmare from an Irish perspective.
Insider is worried that the various interest groups – government, business groups, farmers, trade unions, trade bodies, etc,. – are getting too worked up over the process and on the travails of the UK government and not doing enough in practical terms to prepare for the challenges it will bring.
Insider is also concerned that with all of the focus on Britain, very little attention has been paid to the strategy of the EU side. In particular, very little attention has been paid to signs that the EU may be moving towards further monetary union and greater military co-operation, with signs of the Franco/German axis being reinvigorated following the election of president Macron. If these moves continue the Irish Government and people may have some tough choices to make in the coming years, ultimately with another referendum on deeper integration.
At the beginning of 2017, Insider felt this was unlikely to be an election year and that the various parties had a vested interest in settling down to business and making the ‘new politics’ work. So far he has been (just about ) proven right on there being no election, but wide of the mark on the second prediction.
Further controversies over alleged Garda malpractice and water charges created serious tension between FF and FG which threatened to spill over and cause a general election, while a row over the appointment of former attorney general, Kinvara native Máire Whelan, further eroded trust between the parties and caused much angst for the Independent Alliance.
A recurring theme has been politicians getting very worked up over issues which do not resonate as strongly outside the ‘Leinster House bubble’ – Shane Ross's Judges Bill for example – and appear to be drifting on core issues such as housing, the economy, and the Gárda crisis. Quite simply, if over the course of the autumn the Government, and indeed the other parties, do not show signs of addressing and focusing on the core bread and butter issues, the public will lose patience and the current mood against having a general election will change.
Talking, talking, talking
It has been an eventful few months in the North but with very little progress on the issues that matter. The death of the former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was a blow to the process, but at the beginning of the year few would have foreseen the depth to which matters have sunk.
Arlene Foster enjoyed a triumphant outing in last year’s Assembly Elections but, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun and the wax soon melted. SF pushed the nuclear button, collapsing the executive, and Ms Foster’s arrogance led to a reversal in the recent decline in Nationalist turnout. Despite much talking since, the parties have been unable to reach agreement.
Insider cannot but wonder if both sides are happy to let this run. The DUP recovered from its Assembly setback to post a very strong result in the Westminster election and are now essentially part of the UK government, while SF took a clean sweep of Nationalist seats. Northern Ireland is now almost perfectly divided between SF in the south and west and the DUP in the north and east. The friction between the two sides and a ‘them and us’ backdrop helps secure their electoral positions.
The state of the parties
Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have had a very hectic and high profile few months, while Fianna Fáíl and Labour have been quieter. The polls are not really moving much although the widely held assumption that FF were likely to establish a clear lead over FG (something Insider doubted ) has not come true.
There are a number of interesting dynamics at play. The election of Leo Varadkar has the potential to put clear blue water (no pun intended ) between FG and FF. This may see a greater divergence in their respective voter base. Already indications are that Taoiseach Varadkar is more favoured by urban, middle-class, and highly educated voters; this should put a pep in Hildegarde Naughton’s step (despite her very public endorsement of Simon Coveney ) as her base is heavily skewed towards these demographics. Insider is a little bemused that FF have not pushed Stephen Donnelly more forcefully; he also appeals to these types of voters.
On the other hand, FF may feel there is considerable scope for it to portray itself as the antithesis to Taoiseach Varadkaar, although it needs to be careful as a centrist party not to stray too far to the extremes. Interestingly, polling taken during the FG leadership race indicated both FF and FG stood to benefit more from a Varadkar than a Coveney leadership.
SF will be wary of allowing a narrative of ‘FF v FG to lead the next government’ developing as this may put a squeeze on it and other parties. SF will also be trying a balancing act of watching its left flank while also trying to portray itself as plausible participants in a coalition government.
The Independents meanwhile will be trying to distinguish themselves from the main parties while also trying to distinguish themselves from one another – centrist Independents from Solidarity/AAA, Government supporting Independents from others. Locally, Catherine Connolly will be looking to enhance her image as a unique standalone politician. The Greens will try to keep issues such as climate change and quality of life on the agenda and rebuild a niche for itself.
Balancing acts will be to the fore of politicians minds but Insider would like to see a refocusing on the issues that matter while they are at it. Here’s hoping they all discover their productive side during the summer break!