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Larry Donnelly: Transatlantic Reflections on the Political Year 2013

Obamacare, government shutdown and the Smithwick Tribunal; 2013 was a year of political intrigue both in Ireland and the US, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IT SEEMS TO me that the years pass ever faster as I get older, but this year, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to agrees with my assessment: 2013 went by in a blur.

2013 was a year of political intrigue both here and in the US. Following are my thoughts on some of the matters that kept watchers of Irish and American politics busy for the past 12 months. And none of these is closed just yet.

In the US, 2013 might best be remembered as the year of political dysfunction. Public opinion polls reflect widespread disgust with politicians, from President Obama on down, and with the key institutions of American democracy. After the year that was, it is very difficult to argue with people who are fed up. Indeed, right across the political spectrum, there is plenty wrong they can point to.

Those on the left are dismayed that, in the wake of the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and their teachers with a legally owned firearm at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, the US Congress has not enacted stricter gun control laws. This is despite the reality that a majority of Americans favour them. In the Democrat-controlled Senate, there still aren’t even 60 votes (out of 100) for tougher background checks for gun buyers. As Connecticut Governor Dan Molloy stated after the measure failed to find support: “I was repulsed by the inability of the Congress of the United States to deal with reality.”

Meanwhile, those on the right were given a political gift beyond their wildest dreams when the rollout of President Obama’s equally heralded and maligned health care legislation proved disastrous. The glitches with www.healthcare.gov that caused Americans serious difficulty and distress were fodder for critics of “Obamacare,” who alleged that the problematic website was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the new law’s failings.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the president’s promise that Americans who liked their pre-existing health insurance plans could keep them, thousands received cancellation notices because their plans did not meet the standards set by “Obamacare.” The president was sharply criticised by members of his own party for what they believe to have been a breach of trust and was forced to backpedal and allow Americans to keep purportedly inferior plans for another year, at least.

Of course, there was also the government shutdown and the seemingly endless battle between congressional Democrats and Republicans over the debt ceiling. While some observers are heartened by the way the Speaker of the House of the Representatives, Republican John Boehner, faced down Tea Party sympathisers in his own party and recently got a two year budget deal passed, the ideological divide on taxes and spending remains.

In the longer term interest of America’s fiscal health, the right must accept that the wealthy need to start paying a larger share in taxes and the left must accept that the current level of spending on entitlement programmes like Social Security and Medicare is unsustainable.

The reason there has been no such reckoning to date is the lack of moderates – liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats – in Congress. Moderates were traditionally the deal brokers who got things done on Capitol Hill. Now, they are nearly extinct.

The best possible result of the mid-term congressional elections next year would be if even a handful of new moderates were elected to the House and Senate. More moderates would translate into more progress on the aforementioned issues, as well as on the issue of immigration reform, which thousands of Irish families have long been hoping and praying for.

Three significant events for Ireland

Back here in Ireland, three significant events this year are worth noting. One was the release of the report from the Smithwick Tribunal into the deaths of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers at the hands of the IRA in 1989. The report forced Sinn Féin again to confront its “elephant in the room.” What is its view of violent acts by the IRA from the 1970s until the Good Friday Agreement?

Although the party may take comfort from the fact that it did not lose ground in the polls following comments from Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams TD, to the effect that it was the duty of IRA members to kill the RUC officers, the overwhelmingly negative reaction here indicates that there may be a ceiling on its support in the 26 counties. What’s more, in time, this could be remembered as the beginning of the end of Gerry Adams’ leadership of the party.

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A second was the treatment by the Taoiseach of members of his Fine Gael party, including the Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton, who defied the party whip and voted against the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013. Not alone were they expelled from the parliamentary party, but the Taoiseach announced that they would not stand for election as Fine Gael candidates ever again.

This shone an unprecedentedly bright light on the extremely rigid party whip system in Ireland, which, unlike other parliamentary democracies, does not tolerate any intraparty dissent, even on abortion, the quintessential issue of conscience. The Taoiseach was widely praised for getting abortion legislation passed after decades of deliberate neglect, but criticised by some for exercising political leadership in an autocratic fashion.

The single biggest Irish political happening this year, however, was the Government’s defeat in the referendum it held to abolish Seanad Éireann. Given that anti-politician sentiment is running high and that the present Seanad is largely indefensible in a modern democracy, the fact that the people voted to retain it is remarkable. The majority’s vote – polls revealed that just 7 per cent of the electorate support the status quo – strongly suggests an endorsement of the dramatically reformed Seanad advocated by the Democracy Matters organisation (due disclosure: I am a member), a loose grouping of rather disparately minded individuals who opposed the Government’s abolition initiative.

This month, the Taoiseach has signalled that he favours only piecemeal reform of the status quo. While his position appears irreconcilable with the referendum result and his personal view that the existing Seanad “has not worked and cannot work,” it is based on a realpolitik calculation that the electorate cares little about political reform and on an unwillingness to enable a house of parliament to be a real check on the executive. To achieve its objective, Democracy Matters must convince the Irish people that political reform is important and achievable and members of the Óireachtas that acquiescence in inaction could be an electoral liability.

With elections coming on both sides of the Atlantic, next year is sure to be fascinating for political watchers in a somewhat different way than 2013 was. I look forward to it. Happy New Year!

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

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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