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Dublin: 2 °C Wednesday 23 January, 2019
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Here are just some of the problems facing the Taoiseach as TDs head back to the Dáíl

In what could be Leo Varadkar’s toughest year yet, there are a number of huge issues barrelling towards him from day one.

Image: Sam Boal

THE DÁIL RETURNS after the Christmas break on Tuesday, and as the Taoiseach faces into 2019, he has a number of major issues to grapple with. 

Discussions about what lies ahead are likely to feature at Fine Gael’s first parliamentary party meeting of the new year which is being held today. 

In what could be Leo Varadkar’s toughest year yet, there are a number of huge issues barrelling towards him from day one. 

So, what’s on the cards? 

Brexit 

On top of the agenda for the Taoiseach and his government is Brexit. 

If there was any hope that things might have shifted over the Christmas break, that has now dissipated. UK Prime Minister Theresa May says she still intends to hold a vote in parliament on the Brexit deal on Tuesday, the numbers are still questionable and the Irish government continues to maintain that it has no contingency plans for a hard border. 

The main issue for all sides? The backstop. With the new year just begun the Taoiseach will have to continue to push for little or no changes to the withdrawal agreement, while also walking a steady line in a bid to avoid a crash out by the UK. 

With all the back and forth negotiations aside, the date is still set for 29 March (unless the UK pushes to extend Article 50).

The Irish government has stepped up contingency plans for a hard Brexit, with more contingency plans for transport and medicines to be published tomorrow. On day one of heading back to work, all eyes will be on the legislative programme and whether the raft of legislation Varadkar says will be needed might hold up the show. 

At least 45 legislative changes will be needed, including over 20 pieces of primary legislation, in light of Brexit.

With such a logjam of legislation, the Taoiseach has hinted the old guillotine method might be re-introduced, and that will not go down well with those in opposition. He has also put all his TDs on notice that they must turn up for votes on Wednesdays and Thursdays this year. No excuses. 

Housing 

Back in 2017, Varadkar was bold enough to suggest that the homelessness crisis will be solved by 2019, when he said more houses will be built than are needed.

2019 is upon us and the situation is the worst it has ever been. While housing is being built, it is in no way at the pace that is needed, with many criticising Fine Gael having an ideological issue against building social housing.  

Emergency accommodation figures for November, the latest available figures, show that there were 9,968 people living in homeless accommodation that month, an increase of 244 people on October’s figures. 

Meanwhile, the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin has increased to 156, according to the latest Rough Sleeper Count, which was published last month.

House prices rose by €1,000 per month in 2018, with predictions that prices will rise by 5% this year, the Taoiseach will need to move fast to get affordable housing on the agenda. 

Renting in Ireland has also spiralled with prices superseding that of the boom times. Renting is becoming more expensive by the month, but the rate of increase is slowing thanks to rent pressure zones, which the government is quick to highlight. 

With talk of a reshuffle in the summer, and speculation that Varadkar has fallen out with his buddy Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy (which has been vehemently denied) the Taoiseach might be tempted to put someone new in the job. But will it make any difference? Probably not. 

As the public becomes more desensitised to the homeless on the streets, what might make the Taoiseach get moving is the threat at the ballot box.

While an election date has been set for next year, the Taoiseach would be wise to listen to the voices of those that can’t afford to rent, let alone buy a home. The concerns raised by mums and dads around the country, who have found their 30-something-year-old back home are also not to be brushed aside. This is one issue that has crossed all sects of society, and one that TDs will be all to keen to see addressed before a general election kicks off. This issue will be – or should be – high on Varadkar’s agenda for 2019. 

The Health Service

Another year, another massive overspend in the health budget. With this year’s flu season delayed and only kicking in now, Varadkar is facing into a winter of trolley number headlines greeting him over his morning Wheetabix. 

Not only that, but a strike of all things has been set for 30 January over a nurses dispute about pay. Psychiatric nurses have also backed these plans. Then there’s the capacity issues facing hospitals up and down the country, as well as the waiting lists that last months, if not years. The government says it has a plan, and it’s called Sláintecare. It’s got cross-party approval, but the progress in rolling it out has been slow. 

There’s also the children’s hospital overspend to deal with. That headache is set to rumble on, with the Taoiseach admitting that the overspend could increase, adding that he is now concerned about the operational costs of the hospital once it is built and open. 

Another huge change to the health service this year is the roll out of abortion services at GPs and clinics. The success of the referendum last year was something the government could rest its hat on, but the reality of introducing the services is not without its difficulties, with protests already taking place outside some hospitals. The government is likely to face criticism over not ensuring legislation for exclusion zones was rolled out in parallel with the abortion services. 

Local and European elections /referendums 

It is going to be a busy year in 2019. In May, the local and European elections are being held, as well as a number of referendums including the voting rights of citizens abroad in presidential elections, women in the home, as well as a referendum on reducing the wait time for a divorce to two years

The gender quota issues during the locals is already appearing to be a difficulty, something the Taoiseach has already stated. 

The local and European elections are really important for Fine Gael, said Tánaiste Simon Coveney who added that the party want to be the biggest party in the country, “locally as well as nationally”. Pressure will be on Varadkar to deliver. 

Avoiding bouncing the country into election

Not one to shy away from controversy, Varadkar does have a tendency to rock the boat with some of his comments, particularly when it comes to Fianna Fáil. 

That would be fine of course, if Fine Gael were not relying on Fianna Fáil’s support to keep them in government. 

Before Christmas, the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin agreed that an election would not be held until 2020. Why? The uncertainty of Brexit was the reason given. However, the Taoiseach has since said, while he has no intentions of calling an election, he cannot guarantee that an election will not happen this year, due to the life that is politics. 

Varadkar will have to strike a balance with the main party in opposition, keeping them sweet with some concessions, while avoiding getting to carried away and putting his foot in it. This could prove difficult to the Taoiseach in the months ahead. 

Keeping up the numbers

The numbers supporting the government are tight for the Taoiseach, and in the months ahead he will have to ensure he works those communication channels to ensure there are not more dissenters like that of Peter Fitzpatrick. Threats to leave Fine Gael were also mooted by junior minister Catherine Murphy last year.

Then there are the partners in government – the Independent Alliance – who he will also have to keep satisfied. One of the first tests for this relationship will be at the end of the month when the Occupied Territories Bill comes before the Dáil.

The Bill, which was passed in the Seanad in December, aims to prohibit Ireland from trading in goods and services from Israeli-occupied territories by prohibiting the import and sales of goods, services and natural resources originating in illegal settlements in occupied territories.

It has cross-party support, but Fine Gael are against it. Independent Alliance ministers Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan are seeking a free vote on the Bill. Will Varadkar concede in order to keep the peace?

Climate change

Varadkar has described Ireland as a “laggard” on the issue as it will miss emission reduction targets and faces significant EU fines. There is another climate change action plan, but the main issue up for debate is the roll out of a carbon tax

The Taoiseach said no such charge will be introduced in 2019, but he has to come up with some reasonable plan in order to be seen to do something on the issue. 

Varadkar’s answer so far is to roll out the tax, but at the same time give a rebate cheque to households. With protests over similar issues in France, Varadkar will have to get this right. Remember water charges? Varadkar should definitely learn lessons from that debacle. 

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