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'After Trump and Brexit, the centre ground of Irish politics shouldn't take their position for granted in 2017'

Uncertainty currently reigns in the two countries I call home. Here’s what to expect in the US and in Ireland in 2017, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law Lecturer, NUI Galway

2016, I THINK it’s safe to say, is a year that most people are happy to see coming to an end. At one level, a litany of widely beloved actors, musicians, sporting heroes and other celebrities passed away over the past twelve months.

At another level altogether, numerous atrocities took place in the run-up to the fall of the city of Aleppo. Horrific images of unimaginable human suffering there were seen by millions around the world. And in very recent days, innocent revellers at one of Berlin’s famous Christmas markets were seriously injured or killed by a madman, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated and three worshippers at a mosque in Switzerland were shot.

2016 in politics

In politics, 2016 dealt (at least) two severe blows to conventional wisdom: the decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the American presidential election.

Here in Ireland a February general election, perhaps most notable for Fianna Fáil’s strong comeback, eventually resulted in a minority Government after a lengthy and protracted period of negotiations.

Following are some thoughts on what might lie ahead in American and Irish politics in 2017. Myriad complex and unanswerable questions loom large here and there. Uncertainty currently reigns in the two countries I call home.

Trump’s Presidency

shutterstock_283689917 Source: Shutterstock/Andrew Cline

Given President-elect Trump’s – to put it euphemistically – controversial persona and his still extremely unfavourable poll numbers, it is unsurprising that predictions of a doomed presidency that will do untold damage to the United States abound. Because many are so fearful of what might happen, there was a long unwillingness to accept the outcome and even a movement to subvert the Electoral College.

There is cause for worry about Trump being the next president. He has virtually no relevant experience. Some of his cabinet appointments, such as former Texas Governor Rick Perry, are arguably unqualified; others have no track record of government service or discernible world view to judge them on. As a group, they are extraordinarily wealthy. It is difficult at first glance to reconcile Trump’s decision to surround himself with billionaires with his direct appeal to Americans who have been left behind.

This is democracy

Yet a few things bear repeating. First is that, notwithstanding the oft-cited – but irrelevant – popular vote totals, in choosing Trump, the electorate explicitly rejected both the Republican and Democratic establishments and opted to go in a different direction. That’s democracy.

Second, the various elements of the establishment must recognise that many of the “orthodox” policy solutions they have prescribed at home and abroad have failed. Third, Trump’s critics might now see the institutional gridlock in Washington, DC that is so roundly despised, and the robust American legislative and judicial branches, in a more favourable light. Simply put, he will be largely unable to attempt the dangerous solo runs so many are apprehensive about.

If Trump is wise, he will work to dispel the quasi-apocalyptic suspicions of his ardent detractors immediately. Moreover, he must read the mandate he has received carefully and act accordingly.

On the issues that now seem to matter most, in particular the imperatives to carve out a new, less interventionist role for the US in the world, to bring more good jobs back to what was the country’s industrial heartland and to make the “American Dream” real again, he truly connected with voters. His priorities in office must flow from this connection.

He risks losing the support of those hurting men and women who rallied to his side if he is seen to instead focus on issues that excite doctrinaire right-wingers in an effort to allay doubts on Capitol Hill as to his conservative bona fides.

Trump must listen to advisors

That said, however, he must at the same time adopt a more presidential bearing. While he appears “unadvisable,” his team must counsel that he cease using inflammatory rhetoric, viciously attacking anyone who crosses him and tweeting late at night. This might alienate the most fervent adherents to his populist message, but it is absolutely necessary if he wishes to enjoy successes as president.

Democrats, on the other hand, have to decide how they will work with Trump and their congressional GOP colleagues who now have majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Some activists have rather hysterically insisted that they should literally stonewall for the next two years in the expectations that Trump will implode and that they can gain seats in the mid-term elections in two years.

Democrats must work with Trump

This overlooks the realities that Democrats face an uphill battle to gain Senate seats in 2018 because of the way the election cycle falls and that some of what Trump has pledged to do – namely, to bring back manufacturing jobs and to employ people who are out of work in badly needed infrastructure projects – should be welcomed by Democrats.

If they work with Trump on these issues, they could simultaneously win back some of “Middle America” and drive a wedge in the GOP. Congressional Republicans have already signalled that they will oppose any efforts to undo trade agreements or spend large amounts of public money rebuilding infrastructure. Trump’s campaign promises on both are anathema to the free market conservatives who are the party’s biggest donors.

In short, the process of lawmaking under President Trump in 2017 should be fascinating and, like the man himself, unpredictable and atypical.

Ireland’s minority Government

Brexit Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar (left) and Minister for Housing Simon Coveney at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Meanwhile, the lawmaking process in Ireland has had its own significant complications under a minority Government. Some observers maintain that additional scrutiny of and input into legislation is a welcome development after the manner in which the previous Government rammed legislation through the Dáil and applied the whip in a ridiculously and unnecessarily over-rigid fashion. They assert that minority governments are commonplace now in parliamentary democracies and actually work quite well.

But in truth, political posturing and point scoring, with avoidance of another election as the primary animating impulse, have been to the fore throughout the lifetime of this odd coalition of Fine Gael and Independents, with Fianna Fáil looking on from the “outside” and some would say, calling the shots.

Whatever about elsewhere, the political culture in this country manifestly wasn’t ready in 2016 for a minority government. Precious few pieces of legislation have made their way through the Oireachtas. Nonetheless, opinion polls suggest that the electorate doesn’t really object to a “do nothing” Government.

Fine Gael’s next leader

As 2017 rapidly approaches, much of the chatter in the environs of Leinster House revolves around just how long the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, will stay on as leader of Fine Gael and whether this minority Government can survive another year.

On the first question, despite claiming that he intends to stay on through the middle of 2018, it hard to see how Kenny, who has said that he will not lead Fine Gael into another general election campaign, will still be in situ next Christmas. There are at least two capable and ambitious leadership contenders in Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. And although most TDs and Senators will not admit it openly, there is reportedly a general sense in the parliamentary party that Kenny should go sooner rather than later.

On the second, while both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are extremely averse to the prospect of fighting another campaign in the near future, the inherently precarious nature of this minority Government and the fact that, thus far, every molehill it has encountered has been made into a mountain render its falling in the next twelve months a realistic, albeit unlikely, possibility. Rows with the motley crew of Independents in Government, with whom Fine Gael back benchers are often said to be unhappy, have been resolved to date, but will doubtless flare anew on a range of issues.

In the end, the duration of the Taoiseach’s leadership and of this Government will probably be dictated by twists and turns in events that have already begun to unfold and happenings that are not foreseeable at the moment.

The political centre still holds here

A final point worth considering is the degree to which the political centre has held in Ireland, in total contrast to what has taken place in so many other western democracies. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have the backing of roughly 60% of the electorate. There is no right wing movement as such. The combined support for the left of centre Labour and Social Democrat parties hovers around the 10% mark. And voters on the hard left are very much divided between Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit grouping and several Independents.

The evidently broad public support for the takeover of a Nama-controlled building in Dublin by a volunteer group of artists and activists to house people in response to a serious homelessness and overarching housing crisis merits watching, however. For it represents a somewhat uncharacteristic repudiation of governmental and non-governmental actors whose remit it is to address these issues.

The popularity of the takeover, a direct action in the face of a collective political failure, indicates that those in the centre ground of Irish politics – the establishment – should not take their position for granted. (This is without even taking into account the widespread revolt over water charges.). They must address the legitimate anger and fears of a not insignificant segment of the population if they are to retain the favour of the majority of the electorate who clearly sympathise with families and individuals struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Just as elsewhere, if mainstream political parties in Ireland fail to find and implement workable solutions to the crises that stem from globalisation and other challenging realities of life today or otherwise lose touch with “ordinary people,” they will pay a price.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on all of the above and more on both sides of the Atlantic in 2017. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

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

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Larry Donnelly  / Law Lecturer, NUI Galway

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