Sunday, 21 January 2018

Will 2018 see politics maturing in Ireland?

Photo: The Irish Times
This week's announcement that Mary Lou McDonald will now officially succeed Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein president signifies that 2018 is set to be another defining year in Irish politics. Will Ms McDonald solidify her party's vote North and South? Will Sinn Fein enter government in the Republic under her leadership? What direction will she take them towards in the coming years (assuming she's afforded the time)? Will the national question remain in their focus or will it slip down the agenda? These, and perhaps many others,  are questions that can only be answered through the passage of time, but there's no doubting the strong base of support that the party enjoys throughout the island. They will continue to play a role in Irish politics for many years to come.

For Fianna Fail 2018 will be an important year in their political rehabilitation. Last year was not a good one for them and, while it is true that they have come a  long way since their decimation in 2011, Micheal Martin has a lot to do to restore his previously strong record as leader. In recent months he has been somewhat outpaced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's largely impressive performance. Although Mr Varadkar lost ground over the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald as Tainaiste and the fall out from that, he has since gone on to recover his credibility and Fine Gael's poll ratings have improved too. The government's stout defence of the national interest against the British government's bungling efforts to assure us of 'no hard border' was positively recieved by many.

On the other hand it has been all up hill for Mr Martin and his colleagues, who are now seeing little action other than having the satisfaction of being able to say that they are keeping the Fine Gael-led minority government in power via their Confidence & Supply agreement. But for how long can Fianna Fail keep up that riff?  I suspect the Fianna Fail grassroots are itching for a general election in the hope of wiping the smile off Mr Varadkar's face. Patience, one senses, is wearing thin with Mr Martin's leadership style and something will have to give. If the chief opposition party leave it too long then they may hand the advantage to Fine Gael and the latter could end up boosting their numbers after a poll is held, only prolonging the agony for their opponents.


A referendum has been proposed for later this year on Ireland's abortion laws. No other issue divides society here as much and trenchent positions have been taken on both sides in the past. In recent months efforts have been made by politicians (and also through the Citizens Assembly) to try to take some of the heat out of the debate. Fianna Fail have proposed a free vote among their membership on this issue and, last week, Micheal Martin took a very courageous step in supporting a change in the Constitution (something many in his party are opposed to). In trying to remove politics from what is in essence a social issue, we the people are allowed to judge more clearly for ourselves.

It is to be hoped that this is the first of many such free votes where politicians are able to excercise their conscience on certain issues that come before them. It brings a fresh approach to debating matters which aren't easily slotted into party poltical ideology of one sort or another. This has been happening at Westminster for a good many years now and there is no reason why it shouldn't have already been common practice in Leinster House. Better late than never. The old, shameful, system of expelling a member for voting against the party whip should have been long done away with. Some issues rise above party politics. With some luck 2018 just might see a more mature style of politics blooming in this country and about time too.