2014 was a year of many contrasts. It was a year that could have and should have set the government up for the next election. This was the year they should have rebuilt but instead they took a dive. It was a year filled with rumours and protests and avoidable problems but it has left the political landscape looking very interesting indeed.
The Banking Inquiry is only getting underway but its establishment was making news items over the course of the year. In the end we all know that it will be little more than a political shouting match. It may prove a little therapeutic for us all to see but in reality it will probably deliver nothing more than column inches and discussion points. 2014 saw tribunal findings called into question as George Redmond managed to get a court to rule in his favour. It illustrated the farce of so many public inquiries where the findings are little more than a load of old opinion. They are hailed as gospel by those who like them but derided as nonsense by those that don’t and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
This year kicked off controversy in the Charity sector when pay and bonuses came under the spotlight. Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery at Rehab should have seen the writing on the wall and walked early and saved their charity a lot of distress. Never mind not being able to see the wood for the trees it seems they weren’t able to see the plank of wood repeatedly beating them in the face. They hung on and fought when the fight was clearly over and only served to damage the work that was ongoing. It was an early signal though that many people in Ireland were simply fed up of hearing about large pay and bonus cultures. Yes you might think you are entitled to your salary. Yes you might believe you work hard for it. However, unless you actually know what it’s like to survive on 20k a year, working any hours you can and worrying over your house and family then you simply will not understand how people feel. Ireland is a fairly understanding place but patience has its limits and people just got fed up of hearing about large salaries where clearly a cut or two would not have destroyed them.
It all hinted at the Irish becoming a little tired and worn out by being asked to understand and see the bigger picture. Somebody should have been reading the signs. If they were however they were not advising the government. The local and European elections were a harsh lesson. After the troika had departed they expected to get some thanks but the opposite was the case. The government drifted badly as soon as the troika left. To be honest the economic news wasn’t bad. Unemployment fell. Economic growth was on the up. Consumer confidence rose. The government had decided to leave the bailout without a support lifeline and that plan worked. Ireland was now able to borrow at record lows. All that is pretty impressive. The problem was of course that all people involved in politics thought the troika was a bigger deal than most people felt. That whole ‘we lost or sovereignty’ argument? The whole ‘Ireland is not viable as a state’ thing? Most of Joe public never bought it. They weren’t half as put out by the troika as those of us who follow politics were. They just wanted to keep their job and get on with things and they knew if they did it would eventually come around again. What should have been impressive news for the government was instead something Irish people saw as the least they expected for their sacrifice.
A poor local elections saw Eamon Gilmore resign as Labour leader. Sadly for his party he left it a year too late and nobody had the courage to push him earlier. Joan Burton took over but did so with all the flair of a civil servant replacing their predecessor. She brought some hope to Labour supporters themselves but to those outside of that group they don’t see much difference. Business as usual. There is no seismic shift in Labour influence. There is no sense that things are taking a very different turn. The problem is of course that Gilmore left his departure so late that any major shift is impossible without causing a collapse in government. Labour can still flex its muscle but it is likely that when it does it will be an election issue.
Fine Gael was caught up in the senate debacle with John McNulty. A silly avoidable piece of theatre. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for it because everybody knew it was a stupid senseless piece of political footwork. It got blamed on an official but the electorate knew where they were going to put the blame. It was not a big deal for the man in the street but it was yet another chip in confidence. People have to feel they trust politicians. The issue may not be that big or important to them but if it damages trust it damages the vote.
Alan Shatter got caught up with Martin Callinan with Garda Whistleblowers. Shatter had caused himself a problem by his using of information on a TV show against Mick Wallace. That was always going to create an issue for the Minister. However the whistleblower saga caused him to lose control and to lose the confidence of the Taoiseach who started talking of taking personal responsibility for matters. Shatter was often talked about as a reforming Minister. Unfortunately his record doesn’t exactly point to a raft of new legislation and reforms during his term and it’s not like he wasn’t there long enough. He did however do some good work and was far from the worst Justice Minister we have ever had. His problem largely stemmed from the fact that he had things he really wanted to get done personally and he often followed these at a cost to other items. You don’t get to choose as Minister what you have on your desk. You have to deal with the problems as well as the pet projects. Shatter could have met the whistleblowers, talked to them and asked the Commissioner for his side. He could have been the honest broker and all would have been fine. Instead he stuck his neck out inexplicably to back the Commissioner. It was this that cost him in the end. The crisis was not going to go away so long as he stayed so he had to go, for the sake of the government.
All of these issues left the public deeply suspicious of politics. The reforms have not happened. They sense no change. Most of all they still sense no real leadership. Independents continue to rise at the polls because they are easier to trust than a party. What the Irish voter hungers for more than anything right now is someone they can trust. Whatever the policies they can accept them so long as they can honestly feel this person is doing something for the right reason.
Sinn Fein had a great local and European election. They saw more increases in support. They now stand as a very real potential government party. The electorate will watch how they deal with that pressure and how they stand up to that challenge. They have to show that they are ready to go into government. The problem with leading the polls is that any suggestion that you will not enter government afterwards makes you look weak. They have overcome several problems this year and stand well positioned for the new year but for them too the landscape is changing and they must change with it. SF managed to overcome serious allegations made by Mairia Cahill, largely because people believed that FG, Labour and FF were all just using it as a political point scoring exercise and suspending any form of natural justice. The polls should have soothed SF but they missed a chance to make a real grab for middle ground voters but getting drawn into tit for tat politics. Mary Lou McDonald used the Ansbacher allegations under privilege to equally make a political point and suspend any natural justice. All in all we learned one thing. No political party is different, it’s all about them. They are innocent and everyone else is guilty.
Fianna Fail… well they had a decent local election and bad by elections. That points to a party that is still capable on the ground but is unable to capture any imagination nationally. One could go back over the issues for FF this year but why bother? They are the same issues that were there in 2013, 2012, 2011. FF is stuck in a loop and is terrified of coming out of the loop in case they stop altogether. They say fortune favours the brave and right now FF can expect very few visits from fortune. They are like the fella who sits at the bar all night telling you how he could have any woman in the room but never asks anyone to dance. If you don’t ask you won’t be turned down. That’s a kind of success.
Water charges took on a life of their own. Just when we thought it was all over the government allowed it to do untold damage. They took far too long to reach decisions on it. They lost the middle ground and while they got over the hump of the protests they will still be holding their breaths come spring in the hope that people will pay. There is no guarantee they will. Even if they do the damage is now done to the government and their image. Nobody honestly believes that the government is n control of Irish Water. If they are not in control then who do you turn to? Yet again that feeling of voter trust has been eroded.
2015 will be a big year for anyone who can gain that trust. The field of play is still open and there is still a very volatile electorate out there that can swing wildly. There was a lot of talk about new parties but still very little action and it still hard to decipher if there is any real potential for one.
Finally I can’t let a review of 2014 pass without mentioning the passing of Albert Reynolds. For me personally, that is what I will recall most about this year. A friend, a leader and a man I respected more than any other apart from my own father. Life is far from perfect. Politics is an imperfect science. You won’t get everything right but you hope the scales show a favourable balance. Whether its politicians of the past or those of the present we should remember that it is those that get into the arena that deserve the credit. Whether we agree with them or disagree with them, whether they do things right or wrong, they go out there and do something. If we want it then we should be willing to do the same. Happy New Year.