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Race, immigration, and water water everywhere – the year in Irish and American politics

It was a year of unrest and protest on both sides of the Atlantic, writes Larry Donnelly.

TO REPEAT WHAT has become an annual saying, the years go by ever faster the older I get. 2014, when I celebrated a milestone birthday, may have been the quickest one yet. It seems like mere weeks, and not 12 months, since I sat down to write about the political events of 2013 in my two home countries. At any rate, here goes again.

In the US, the forever complex issue of race dominated the news headlines. Six years ago, when the American people elected their first African American president, many commentators opined that a new, post-racial nation had been born. The aftermath of events this year in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio and New York City involving police officers and persons of colour put paid to that sentiment.

The reaction of Americans to these tragic incidents in which three individuals, including a 12-year-old boy, lost their lives was divided very much along racial lines. White people generally retain a strong faith in the police; many black people do not trust and do not respect the police. Although the extent to which officers in these fatalities are to blame varies and will always be the subject of debate, each incident sadly reflects a total lack of empathy.

Endeavouring to generate a capacity for greater understanding on both sides is a monumental and maybe impossible task. It must be pursued indefatigably, however, and ordinarily reticent political leaders have a central role to play in this project. It is too important to ignore once incidents fade from the headlines.

American politics boils down to a simple – profoundly sad – formula

In the mid-term elections, the Democrats suffered a drubbing that exceeded the expectations of most pundits. It’s been pointed out repeatedly since that a second term president’s party typically lose congressional seats at the halfway mark in that term. But what is more troubling for politics writ large is the extent to which turnout dictates outcome.

In mid-terms, about 40% of the electorate participate. They are older and whiter and Republicans do well. In presidential races, about 60% of the electorate go to the polls. They are younger and darker and Democrats do well. It is profoundly sad that American politics now boils down to this simple formula.

As they look ahead to 2016, Republicans need to find a presidential nominee who can win over some of those Americans who only vote every four years. Meanwhile, Democrats must run a number of congressional candidates who appeal to “old school” members of their party and independents alienated by their (former) party’s leftward lurch, particularly on social issues.

Immigration and diplomatic relations

President Obama definitely had one eye firmly fixed on his legacy in 2014. His executive action on immigration reform and moves to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba were brave initiatives with potentially far-reaching consequences. US policy regarding Cuba never worked and is clung to solely by a steadily dwindling group of resolutely anti-Castro, first generation Cuban Americans.

The president’s decision to use his executive power on immigration reform is a proud reaffirmation that America always has been and always will be a nation of immigrants. While the details around making return visits to Ireland remain to be seen and those with children will be in a better position that those without, this was the first good news for the 50,000 undocumented Irish in a long time. The role played by their Irish and Irish American advocates on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill in this ongoing process should not be underestimated.

Water, water everywhere

Back here in Ireland, it really has been a case of “water, water, everywhere.” Although it may be the least offensive of all the various tax increases and spending cuts that have been visited upon the Irish people in recent years, water charges really have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The iron-fisted way the legislation was rammed through the Oireachtas originally and then the ham-fisted way it was rolled out show this Government in a very bad light.

The Irish Water debacle might go some way toward accounting for the incredible reality that all economic indicators are currently good, yet the Government parties are struggling. Fine Gael is hovering around the 20% mark and Labour stands at 6% according to one recent poll. If nothing else, 2014 is the year that’s made a lot of politicos question the supposed eternal truism: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Maybe it isn’t always.

The rise and rise of the independents

Of course, no consideration of the past 12 months in Irish politics can leave out the inexorable rise of independents. One recent poll had independents and others at 32%, their highest ever showing. Veteran party politicians, such as Pat Rabbitte, have been decrying this swing to independents, who they accuse of populism and claim are incapable of governing.

One of these independents, Stephen Donnelly, trenchantly disagrees. Writing in the Sunday Independent, he argues that voters are supporting independents because “they see TDs who they know are speaking their mind, whether they agree with them or not” and because they “want an active parliament, and understand the value of un-whipped TDs in such a parliament.”

Deputy Donnelly’s points are well-made. Political reform, especially of the whip system, is long overdue. But whether Irish people who now favour independents have such lofty ideals in mind is an open question. Whether independents from across the ideological spectrum could cohere and run this country is an equally open question. Some observers posit that there will be a general election next year and we will soon have the answers to these questions. I think they are wrong.

Prognostications aside, here’s hoping that we all have a happy, healthy new year and that 2015 will prove another fascinating year in politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and columnist with and

The police killings that have sparked racial tensions in the US this year

Water, abortion rights and determined sit-ins: 2014 was a year of Irish protests

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