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2020 – What a Year! And we’re only half way through

By Sean Farrell

In January we had – finally – Brexit, with the finale to come at year’s end. February saw that General Election with the inconclusive result, of which more below.  March to June 2020 will be forever identified with the Virus - still very much with us and something which has coloured every aspect of our lives.  Even as it rages through the Americas, the Middle East and the Sub- Continent, for the moment here in Ireland, as elsewhere in those Western European countries first attacked,  the Corona Virus is held in check and  the cautious opening up of the countrywide lockdown is now well under way.  Ireland’s all-island death toll is nudging 2,300 and the magic R figure is well below one. We are no longer in the world top twenty for deaths ( now 27th) but remain ninth in terms of deaths per million, behind the USA and seven of our EU partners. And, as elsewhere, Irish deaths are overwhelmingly among the old (many in retirement homes), the sick and the infirm.

Any sense of relief is tempered by awareness of the bereavements suffered and those voices predicting a second more vicious wave of infection. This may well happen, but at all levels the general opinion seems to be that this time we will not be caught unawares, that we know more about the virus now and that  importantly we know how to contain it. Indeed renewed limited infections of a disease where the mortality rate hovers around two per cent may prove to be a lesser task than economic recovery. Getting the toothpaste back in the tube in terms of undoing the economic and social havoc wrought by the Virus will be a monumental task and one for the long haul; there was full employment and a booming economy before the Virus struck, whatever about deficiencies in housing and health .

Micheal Martin will become the new Taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland

But first off we need a government. We now have one – a historic three party coalition, just agreed after months of negotiation, not helped by the stultifying omnipresent Virus, with the hatchet buried between the two old Civil War parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael as they enter coalition with  the Greens . Agreement was a close run thing with the two thirds majority required by the Greens barely achieved and some skeptics convinced therefore that it will not last.

 The February election had been historic. Not only had Sinn Fein broken through big time but it actually garnered more votes than either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. In terms of seats Fianna Fail just edged it with 38, Sinn Fein got 37 and Fine Gael 35, out of 160.    With eighty plus seats required to form a government  what was clear was that the process  was going to be long and arduous, matching if not exceeding that of 2016, with the Greens, (12 seats) and a slew of small parties and Independents  featuring also in the mix.

Sinn Fein had campaigned on a shamelessly populist and dubiously costed platform tailored to public demands for action on housing and health (overwhelmingly identified in polls as the two issues most of public concern), packaged and presented as a “mandate for change.”  Was its result a flash in the pan, just a temporary surge born of dissatisfaction with the other parties and therefore part of the periodical “throw the bums out” rushes of blood to the head which grips the Irish electorate at intervals? Or did it represent the start of a seismic shift to the Left in Irish politics as Sinn Fein and others proclaimed? And was it a” mandate for change?” Sinn Fein and the other identifiable Leftist parties clocked up around 36% of the votes with the Greens winning another 7%, the 43% total matching almost exactly the combined vote for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. With many of the Independents carrying FF or FG sentiments “in their DNA” the jury remains out on that one.

What WAS abundantly clear was that no two parties could together form a government. The necessary numbers could be achieved only by coalition with a third party or a significant number of Independents. After Sinn Fein’s Initial attempt to form a left of centre government failed, the options for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were clear – either involve Sinn Fein or shut them out.

 Right away the decision was to shut them out even though a three party grand coalition would easily have the numbers.  This before the Virus struck. Clearly Sinn Fein were seen as having too much historical baggage  for both the other parties and were potentially also an existential threat to Fianna Fail in particular. The major argument in favour of inclusion - that Sinn Fein would thus have to get off the fence, participate in and share responsibility for some tough decisions – was discounted. Shutting them out narrowed the possibilities down to opting for a second election – for which there was no enthusiasm - or for the two parties to agree to form a historic coalition, suspending, however temporarily, traditional enmities and then court the Greens and/ or others to get the necessary numbers. There had been informal arrangements in the past – after 1987 and again in the “Confidence and Supply “arrangement after 2016, but formal coalition would be something else. For better or worse this was the option chosen.

Would the two parties have decided similarly only weeks later when the extent of the economic and social carnage wrought by the Virus became known? And, a rhetorical question, how much does Leo Varadkar, now riding high in the polls for his government’s  handling of the Virus emergency, regret calling the election in February and not waiting? Whatever, the pressing need to form a government by bringing in the Greens (vastly preferable to handling a gaggle of independents) gave them enormous leverage, something the Greens  have not been slow to exploit. The result has been a wordy, lengthy (137 pages) Program for Government with the imprint of the Greens all over it, despite the low priority the public have given to fighting climate change. Whether it will survive the first months’ brush with reality remains to be seen.

The Program is largely aspirational and not costed - but what aspirations! It commits the Government, inter alia,  to an average 7% annual reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 ( 51% over the decade) – the Red Line issue for Green participation. Moreover a 2050 target for net zero emissions will be included in a Climate Action Bill to be introduced in the government’s first 100 days. This, and the other measures to combat global warming, if implemented, would put Ireland among the global leaders in saving the planet. There’s plenty of waffle on housing targets and just about everything else with nothing stated on where the money will come from.

The new government will see Micheal Martin as Taoiseach swop with Leo Varadkar after 30 months. The Greens (twelve seats)  will have three Cabinet Minsters (out of fifteen) and four Junior Ministers ( out of twenty) . Not a bad haul. More next time.

Sean Farrell is a retired Irish diplomat and former Irish Consul General in Chicago in 2006-7. Previous posts included Irish Abroad Director in the Dept of Foreign Affairs & Irish Ambassador to Estonia from 2001-4. He was also an EC Peace Monitor in Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-2 before serving in Belfast from 1992-95 as Deputy Head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Maryfield, a period that saw the first ceasefires and moves towards the settlement of the Good Friday Agreement.

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