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'Some scoff at his use of social media and attire but 'brand Leo' is resonating with us'

The big questions is: can the present government last another year, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

SIMILAR TO THE Citizens’ Assembly before it, the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution has surprised most observers with its (not unanimous) recommendations that the anti-abortion provision should be repealed and that legislation should be introduced allowing for unrestricted access to the procedure for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Its decisions in this regard seem to have been shaped by two realities: the difficulty of legislating for rape or incest exceptions, and the widespread availability of abortion pills, which many Irish women are already availing of.

An emotive debate

The referendum on the issue, to be held in May of next year if the Taoiseach gets his way, will attract a lot of attention in the media and inflame passions on both sides in the coming months.

While the overwhelming majority of politicians would love dearly to take a low profile in an emotive debate that has been simmering for decades, they all will be forced to take a stand and accept the fallout that will come with it.

Conventional wisdom and history suggest that abortion is not an issue that will be to the fore of people’s thinking come general election time. Yet it is hard to fathom that, given how much air and other time the Eighth Amendment will garner in 2018, a chunk of the electorate won’t be thinking about it when the current fragile arrangement that is our government expires.

And as that day of reckoning draws ever nearer, it is worth considering what 2017 has thrown up and what the myriad consequences may be in the New Year.

Brand Leo

Many of us who follow the goings on in Leinster House avidly thought that his poor political reckoning about the position of the former Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, in the context of her handling of emails relating to the strategy being pursued by Nóirín O’Sullivan’s lawyers would cost Leo Varadkar – and maybe Fine Gael – in the opinion polls. We were wrong.

In fact, it hasn’t diminished his standing at all, hinting that most of the citizenry either paid scant attention to the high drama as it unfolded or thought little of it.

The series of polls conducted in recent months are crystal clear in one sense: Varadkar is a popular public figure and his parliamentary colleagues in Fine Gael were absolutely right, politically speaking anyway, when they chose him to lead them and the country.

Insiders often scoff at his use of social media, attire and deliberately somewhat detached persona. Nonetheless, “brand Leo” is resonating on one level with the Irish people. In fact, had there been a snap pre-Christmas general election, it seems that the Taoiseach’s party would have fared very well indeed.

Tangible policy initiatives

How long the good feeling will last as men and women await a vision and related, tangible policy initiatives from a leader some believe could be capable of great things is an open question, however. And the system militates against anyone seeking to be transformative.

Opinion surveys simultaneously reveal that the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, is also well-regarded. His long experience in the Dáil showed in his dealings with the Taoiseach during the period of uncertainty about Frances Fitzgerald and the future of the confidence and supply agreement.

Although his standing didn’t get a major numerical boost as a result, Martin’s deft and assured performance has quelled the discontent with his overarching approach in some quarters within his party for the time being.

How long until a general election?

Heading into 2018, especially in light of the recent turbulence between the two largest parties, the oft-asked question is how long until a general election?

While some have speculated that the relationship between Varadkar and Martin has strengthened, as have the chances that the present government can last another year, it is difficult to imagine how this inherently unwieldy entity will survive the next, inevitable bump in the road. Of course, we don’t know what the future holds, but the year ahead will not be all plain sailing.

In this vein, it is interesting to listen to the late 2017 noises emanating from some in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael about the possibility of forming a coalition with a Mary Lou McDonald-led Sinn Féin. These have been disavowed by both Varadkar and Martin.

There is a definite sense, however, that the former political wing of the IRA will have a very different image and a kind of respectability in the eyes of the electorate under McDonald than it ever could have with Gerry Adams at the helm. And this may well colour how Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pivot in the coming months.

This is the political backdrop as the government must address some vexing conundrums: housing/ homelessness, the health system, the economy and where Brexit will ultimately leave Ireland. It would be good if, in attempting to square the circle on all of these challenges, there was some “outside the political box” thinking in both houses of the Oireachtas.

Centrist, pragmatic politicians

For instance, truisms that almost every person living in this country readily accepts – “the market” will not solve the housing crisis, Ireland is far too Dublin-centric, nurses are overworked and underpaid, et al – should feature prominently in whatever solutions are devised to solve complex problems.

Cynics will pounce on this and call it wishful thinking in the muddled world of Irish politics. If precedent is any dictate, they have a point. But it’s incorrect and lazy to invariably presume the worst. Those prone to unwavering negativity need only look at the farcical states of play on the other side of the Atlantic and of the Irish Sea for a reality check.

In 2018, the broadly centrist, pragmatic politicians the people have put their sacred trust in to lead will have further opportunities on some wide-ranging fronts to vindicate our collective judgment. Let’s be hopeful.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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