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Dublin: 15 °C Monday 1 September, 2014

Mahon, Reilly, Savita: Game-changing political moments of 2012

Unlike 2011 this was not a year of any seismic shifts in Irish politics but there were plenty of stand-out moments which will have repercussions going into next year and most of them involved one man…

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

POLITICALLY SPEAKING THIS year was never going to be as seismic as last year – a historic general election – but that is not to say that 2012 was not without political controversy, the type which will linger on into 2013 and beyond.

As we approach the two-year mark in the current government’s term there are doubts about its ability to last until 2016 and those doubts have much to do with how much more tough decisions and cuts Labour is now prepared to put up with.

This year it has been forced to strip two senior party figures of the whip – Róisín Shortall and Colm Keaveney – and it’s fair to say that Budget 2013 did little for the grassroots of the party or for anyone who voted Labour on the promise that child benefit would not be cut.

The decision by party chairman Keaveney to vote against the government on the Budget – and thus lose the whip – will present problems internally and externally in the new year as the party leadership mulls on whether or not to strip him of the chairmanship. Just as in 2011 when three party TDs lost the whip, this year has presented more internal trouble for Labour.

How much more will it take before something – much bigger than a few TDs overboard – gives? That is the biggest political question going into next year after a turbulent 2012.

‘Reillyshambles’

Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

But for all the trouble with Labour things are not rosy in the garden for Fine Gael and it would not be unkind to say that one particular Cabinet minister has been at the forefront of many of the political controversies that have troubled the coalition, one Dr James Reilly, Minister for Health.

Despite his explanation that the selection of two sites for proposed primary care centres in his constituency was one based on a “logistical, logarithmic progression”, Reilly has been unable to escape the stench of stroke politics, an accusation coming from the opposition and his own former junior minister.

His decision to add two sites in his own political backyard to the final list for sites on the night before they were announced publicly in June has not been properly explained and nor are the opposition letting up in asking him to explain it.

Losing the very minister responsible for primary care in Róisín Shortall – who resigned in September and slammed Reilly’s stroke politics – was bad enough but coming just days after he survived a humiliating vote of no confidence in the Dáil it has contributed to the overall sense of crisis surrounding Reilly.

Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

That wasn’t helped by the Minister being forced to make a statement in the Dáil about his own personal matters after his name appeared on the defaulters’ list in the Stubbs Gazette, the first time this had ever happened to a serving Cabinet minister.

Personal financial troubles, resignations (let’s not forget the departure of HSE chief executive Cathal Magee) and accusations of stroke politics were bad enough but Reilly could not even point to the work he was doing in reform Ireland’s troubled health service without issues being raised about that with the overrun in the health budget by some €321 million by the end of November.

This has been Reilly’s annus horribillis and it shows little signs of improving next year with the Irish Independent reporting earlier this month that the Minister faces being reshuffled out of the health portfolio in the autumn. He is unlikely to have been considered a success in the role.

Abortion

Unfortunately it does not end there for Reilly who was closely associated to another politically game-changing moment this year in the form of the death of Savita Halappanavar at Galway University Hospital in October. Her death remains unexplained amid claims from her family that she was denied an abortion that they say would have saved her life.

Pic: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Reilly’s and the government’s reluctance to set up a public inquiry into her death drew criticism from Savita’s grieving husband and the issue that has been controversial in Ireland for decades, abortion, was very much back on the political agenda. So much so that there was little talk about the Budget in November.

By chance the expert group on abortion’s long-awaited report was handed to the Minister the night before news of Savita’s death broke and as the pro-choice lobby staged a number of protests there was pressure on the government to legislate for the Supreme Court X Case.

That’s not to say there wasn’t pressure from the other side of the debate, the pro-life lobby holding a well-attended protest outside the Dáil as TDs debated the issue in December.

The government’s decision before the Dáil broke for Christmas to legislate and introduce regulations making abortion legal in Ireland within the terms of the X Case judgement means that the issue of abortion will dominate the political agenda in the first part of next year.

The strong pro-life beliefs of some within the Fine Gael backbenches are likely to cause significant trouble for the Cabinet. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a number of TDs, maybe even one government minister in Lucinda Creighton going overboard.

Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Referendum competency

One other significantly outstanding issue for the government from this year is its handling of the children’s referendum and the finding of the Supreme Court that its information booklet and website breached the principles of the McKenna judgement on impartiality.

The court’s finding days before the plebiscite led to it being passed without the kind of majority that had been predicted, a blow for the credibility of the government and one which could yet lead to the result of the referendum being challenged in the courts.

But away from the government the year was not without political game-changing controversies for those on the opposition benches.

Fianna Fáil

Fianna Fáil spent much of the spring dealing with the fallout from the Mahon Tribunal‘s damning report into corruption in the planning process.

True this affected many political parties but it was the ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ who suffered most in terms of criticism with former taoiseach and party leader Bertie Ahern resigning from the party he led for over a decade – although he rejected the findings of the Tribunal.

Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Micheál Martin did his best to purge himself of the stains left by his association with the likes of Ahern who was found by Judge Alan Mahon to have lied to the tribunal, but it was a difficult time for the current Fianna Fáil leader.

Fianna Fáil saw a raft of old names and old problems re-emerge at a time when the country is suffering economic hardship. Needless to say this did not endear them to the public and served only to remind the people why the voted the party out of government so mercilessly less than two years ago.

It wasn’t the only problem the party encountered with the leadership’s disagreement with Éamon Ó Cuív over the fiscal treaty referendum – Fianna Fáil campaigned for a Yes vote, Ó Cuív campaigned for No – seeing the grandson of the Eamon de Valera resign from the deputy leadership of the party his grandfather founded.

Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

And the rest…

Controversy did not escape the benches where independent TDs sit as Wexford deputy Mick Wallace spent a sizeable portion of June in the spotlight over his company’s under-declared VAT and subsequent settlement with the Revenue.

Wallace came in for condemnation from all sides of the house and ended-up making an emotional statement in the Dáil where he said half of his salary would go to the Revenue:


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There were calls for him to step down from his seat but he remained despite losing much of his credibility as a result of his actions. The former builder remains in his seat for now and still manages to get speaking time despite being shunned by many in the Dáil Technical Group.

His ability to retain any credibility and indeed his seat at the next election has been changed utterly after the events of this year.

Photocall Ireland

Finally, let us not forget the Seanad, where there was a potentially significant moment in the battle to either scrap or save the much-maligned second chamber as Labour senators voted against the government in a vote on reforming the chamber.

The government has pledged to scrap it altogether with a referendum pencilled in for late 2013 but it appears even those on the government benches in the Seanad aren’t entirely sold on that idea.

This largely unnoticed game-changer coupled with the significant backlash against the Budget in the Seanad just last week could yet make for another division within the coalition that would add to the doubts that remain about its ability to last all the way to the next election.

Read: In 85 years, just six TDs have resigned from the Dáil. Who and why?

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