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TDs Niamh Smyth and Catherine Martin
rollercoaster year

These are the winners and losers from the Irish political year 2023

As picked by The Journal’s political team.

IT’S THAT TIME of year again, where we cast our eye back over the Irish political year to see who has weathered the storms successfully and who has struggled to keep their head above water. 

There’s lots to unpack for 2023 – the loss of two junior ministers in the beginning of the year, housing, the cost-of-living crisis, the RTÉ controversy, along with the Ukraine war, the Hamas attack on Israel and the bombardment of Gaza in the weeks following.

So, let’s take a look back at 2023 to see who had a good year and a bad year this year. 

In no particular order…

WINNERS

Micheál Martin 

tanaiste  12_90690706 Sam Boal Sam Boal

Tánaiste and Minister of Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin is finishing 2023 off on a high.

This time last year, there were questions about how Martin would handle his rotation out of the Taoiseach job, but over the last 12 months the Cork man has found his stride in his new department. 

He has also been widely praised for how he has handled the conflict in the Middle East and over his recent trip to Israel.

While there were mutterings of a heave against the Fianna Fáil leader over a year ago, all has gone quiet, with Martin pledging that he plans to lead the party into the next general election.

Six months ago, the Tánaiste was being talked about for the European Commissioner job that will have to be filled in the summer, but Martin is staying put, it seems. 

The only drawback for FF is that despite Martin having a relatively good popularity standing in recent polls, it is not trickling down into party support with Fianna Fáil still languishing in the late teens (19% in a recent Sunday Independent poll).

Holly Cairns

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Another winner from Cork, but this time it’s Holly Cairns who became the new leader of the Social Democrats this year. 

At just 34, it is quite the achievement for the first-time TD to move through the political echelons of power at such speed.

She managed a bloodless transition of power, with Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy standing aside and giving their seal of approval. The only downside is the bounce in the polls, or the ‘Holly hop’ as it was dubbed, has not lasted. 

 Niamh Smyth  

fianna Fail 02_90538033 Sam Boal Sam Boal

Fianna Fáil has is often criticised for its lack of female representation, but one woman who came to the fore this year is the party’s spokesperson on arts and culture, Niamh Smyth, who served as the Chair of the Oireachtas Media Committee. 

She navigated the RTÉ and Ryan Tubridy controversy with ease, with many commenting that it was always done with a polite smile and a fairness shown to attendees and politicians in what was a gruelling few weeks of hearings over the summer. 

The TD for Cavan-Monaghan is one to watch.

David Cullinane 

sinn-feins-health-spokesperson-david-cullinane-speaking-to-the-media-outside-leinster-house-in-dublin-picture-date-tuesday-october-24-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Sinn Féin TD for Waterford David Cullinane sparked controversy after being recorded saying ‘Up the Ra’ at an event after his election in 2020, but fast forward four years and the deputy is holding his own in terms of shadowing Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and shrewdly highlighting any failings. 

As the party’s spokesperson, Cullinane has highlighted serious failings in the health service over the last 12 months, such as spinal surgery treatment for children as well as the spiralling costs associated with the new Children’s Hospital. 

LOSERS 

Stephen Donnelly

minister-for-health-stephen-donnelly-during-a-budget-2024-press-conference-at-government-buildings-in-dublin-picture-date-wednesday-october-11-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It hasn’t been a great year for Stephen Donnelly. While last year, the minister of health was singing about all the wins he had got in the budget, this year was a different story.

A gaping hole has emerged in the health service finances, which has resulted in yet another bailout through a supplementary estimate. It is never a good look when the head of the HSE has to come out on radio to state that the amount of money being provided will have a serious impact on services in the year ahead.

While Donnelly can point to gains such as cutting hospital charges, extending free GP visits to children aged six and seven, as well as free contraception for a certain cohort of women, next year will be a tumultuous one for the minister and the health service. 

Helen McEntee

Facial Recognition-2_90695357 Sam Boal Sam Boal

Justice Minister Helen McEntee will be glad to see 2023 out as it hasn’t been her year. 

The Meath TD was tipped in some quarters to be the next leader of Fine Gael, but that chat has died down in recent months as crime and safety came under the spotlight in Dublin. 

After the assault of an American tourist, the minister walked into a press conference in Dublin’s Store Street, flanked by senior gardaí. 

Photos of the minister walking up a Dublin street surrounded by gardaí did McEntee no favours, with many pointing out it is easy to say the capital is safe (as McEntee did repeatedly) when you have official garda protection.

Declaring that Dublin is safe appeared to be the hill on which the the minister was willing to die. 

However, following the horrific knife attack at a school on Parnell Square and the Dublin riot that followed, there was no denying that there was a major problem in terms of safety and security, with policing matters coming under sharp focus in recent weeks. 

This culminated in a motion of no confidence being tabled by Sinn Féin. The minister survived, but there is no doubt such events have damaged McEntee. 

Damien English

file-photo-dated-27092022-of-minister-of-state-damien-english-who-has-resigned-over-an-issue-with-a-planning-application-issue-date-thursday-january-12-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It was early in 2023 that the government had its first casualties, with the loss of one of its junior ministers. 

English, the minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, informed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the first few days of January of his decision to resign following a discrepancy in a planning application that was revealed by The Ditch website. 

It wasn’t a great start to the year for the coalition, but English was commended by his colleagues for his swift action in stepping down. 

Mary Lou McDonald

download (1) Sam Boal Sam Boal

Sinn Féin may still be the most popular political party in Ireland according to the most recent Business Post/Red C poll but as the year progressed McDonald’s party has been slowly slipping down the polls.

The most recent one put Sinn Féin at 29 per cent, down from a record high of 36 per cent in the middle of last year. For the first time in a while, she has also fallen behind Leo Varadkar in leader popularity.

It hasn’t been a year of plain sailing for McDonald. She’s had to clarify past dealings with former Sinn Féin councillor and criminal Jonathan Dowdall, fight off claims that Sinn Féin is trying to silence media with legal actions and also grapple with providing a coherent response to the situation in Gaza and the immigration question at home.

Let’s not forget too the failed motion of no confidence in Justice Minister Helen McEntee after the Dublin riot last month.

Sinn Féin’s strongest hand is often housing and cost of living. McDonald will be hoping the party can keep its message on these issues front of the public’s mind as we enter the new year.

Catherine Martin

0263 Catherine Martin_90573020 Leah Farrell Leah Farrell

Let’s face it, it might not have been the worst year for the Minister for Media and Sport but it definitely wasn’t the best one. 

Looking back on the year, the RTÉ scandal will stand out to many as a defining feature.

From flip-flops to soul-affecting salaries, the undisclosed payments made to Ryan Tubridy plunged the state broadcaster into disrepute and as Minister for Media, Martin was slow to get a grip on the situation.

Prior to the RTÉ scandal, the Greens deputy leader was a stronger contender against Ryan’s leadership but her chances of taking the reins of the party (for now at least) look to be greatly reduced.

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Christina Finn and Jane Matthews
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