The Political Year 2018 was one dominated by two issues — Brexit and abortion. Having lost Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald late last year, the Government hobbled through the year. Amid continued speculation about an early election, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar eventually got Fianna Fáil to submit to another 12 months of this faltering weak minority government. Political Editor Daniel McConnell reviews the highlights and lowlights of a truly historic year in Irish politics
The year began with Cabinet unease at its own proposals to allow abortions in most cases up to 12 weeks, as had been recommended by the special Oireachtas committee.
Allowing such unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy may be “a step too far” and goes “further than many would have anticipated”, said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in early January.
Mr Varadkar raised the concern despite ministers being warned at Cabinet by Simon Harris that they would lose their political cover if they deviate from the recommendations by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment or try to unpick its findings.
Focus then centred on the concerns of Tánaiste Simon Coveney who agonised about what was being proposed.
Then a few weeks later, Coveney performed a miraculous U-turn saying he was happy to proceed now that a 72-hour waiting period was inserted into the proposed legislation.
He drew ridicule 24 hours later when he floated a proposal which would require a two-thirds Dáil majority to alter any future legislation. Having flown the kite on the eve of Cabinet, Coveney’s plan was dead by lunchtime.
Fianna Fáil had its own troubles on the bill with 31 of its TDs breaking ranks with their leader to oppose the referendum. Leader Micheál Martin courageously stood in the Dáil and backed the 12-weeks proposal, despite such hostility in the benches behind him.
Many of his TDs even opposed the proposal being put to the people, amid criticism of being anti-democratic, by way of a vote in the Dáil. Eventually, the date for the referendum was called for May 25.
What a mess! The year has ended with UK prime minister Theresa May’s tenure in turmoil.
Censured by parliament, rebuffed by the EU over her demands to re-examine the Withdrawal Agreement and forced to pull the vote from the House of Commons, May’s authority evaporated.
The issue of the Irish backstop came to the fore with Brexiteers and the DUP calling for it to be excised from the agreement.
After 18 months of tortuous talks, a deal was finally agreed in late November between May’s government and the EU taskforce only to be rejected out of hand by MPs.
Throughout the year, May had shown remarkable fortitude despite losing Boris Johnson, David Davies and later Dominic Raab and others from her cabinet over Brexit, but her efforts appear to have been in vain.
From an Irish perspective, the deal was to be done by June, then October, then November, leading for increased calls for the Government to make clear its contingency plans in case of a no-deal.
Simon Coveney, in particular, was adamant that no discussion about the possible return of a border was to be allowed and went on the warpath repeatedly when such talk or media reports did emerge.
On the plus side, Ireland has seen a remarkable level of solidarity from our EU friends, which makes a change from a decade ago, but questions remain as to how long that will last.
On taking office, Mr Varadkar said he would be prioritising communications like never before.
Thus led to the creation of his controversial Strategic Communications Unit.
Hated by the old guard civil service and Opposition alike, having said it would cost nothing initially, a budget of €5m for the George Orwellian sounding unit.
After it emerged that it was ordered that Government-sponsored material run in local and national papers be made look like genuine editorial content, the unit’s days were numbered.
A review was ordered and Martin Fraser, the top civil servant in the country, recommended it be wound down, which it was by July. All 15 staff in the unit were redeployed to other areas of the civil service. Mr Fraser outlined his concerns regarding the effect the unit, and the negative publicity it had drawn, was now having on the civil service.
A Sinn Féin motion calling for the disbandment of the unit was carried in the Dáil, after Fianna Fáil supported it.
Mr Varadkar was having a great first St Patrick’s Day trip to the White House last March when it all went wrong after admitting he lobbied on behalf of US president Donald Trump when he was transport minister.
During his address at the traditional speaker’s lunch on Capitol Hill, in front of US president Donald Trump and speaker Paul Ryan, Mr Varadkar blurted out that he and the president “actually had been in contact before he was president and I was Taoiseach”.
He recalled that Trump raised the issue of his recent golf resort purchase in Doonbeg, Co Clare, and his concerns about windfarms that were to be built in the area.
Mr Varadkar said he then rang Clare County Council. “I tried to do what I could do. The planning permission was declined,” he said. “The president has very kindly given me credit for that. I have to say it probably would have been refused anyway.”
Fine Gael senator Neale Richmond said it was “clearly a light-hearted anecdote”.
The Taoiseach’s spokesman said Mr Varadkar had sought a briefing from the local authority on the issue and added there was “absolutely no” suggestion he attempted to intervene or influence the planning process.
Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins claimed Mr Varadkar “has become overwhelmed by his role and his surroundings on his trip to the United States and that is evidenced by this story he blurted out to everyone’s amazement”.
Having been dumped by Mr Varadkar from the Strategic Communications Unit, its director John Concannon was given charge of the launch of Ireland’s bid to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2020.
The glitzy bid involved a major bash at UN headquarters including addresses by U2’s Bono, former President and UN bigwig Mary Robinson, and Mr Varadkar himself.
The night before, 150 UN ambassadors were wined and dined by Ireland at U2’s lacklustre concert at Madison Square Gardens. The Government’s campaign to secure a seat on the UN Security Council cost the exchequer €370,000, official figures later showed.
As part of that, the Government also paid for the hotels for a number of Irish hacks in New York to write on the events.
Clearly annoyed at the Irish media, Mr Varadkar used a closed event to give out at the treatment of him in the press. He said Trump’s criticism of the media was one of the few things he could sympathise with the US president about.
He was particularly critical of the political press. He claimed political journalists were more interested in gossip at Dáil Éireann than in the workings of government, describing their interest in whispers in the corridors. It was getting to the stage where people were wondering could the Taoiseach go to the US without getting himself into trouble.
What possibly upset Varadkar was at the start of his trip were questions by the Irish hacks about him having to rely on the vote of convicted criminal Michael Lowry to survive.
Lowry had confirmed that weekend to John Lee in the Mail on Sunday that his support for Mr Varadkar was rock solid.
Lowry was fined and banned from acting as a company director for three years after being found guilty by a jury of two offences relating to his refrigeration company, Garuda.
He was fined €15,000 and Garuda was fined €10,000 after being found guilty of a tax offence and failing to keep proper books of account.
Speaking after the trial, Lowry put a brave face saying the outcome was a “fantastic result”.
His trial he said, should have been held locally and at district court level. “What business had they brought me here to the special, criminal court in Dublin? None. None. And that has been proven.”
After 34 years at the helm, the departure of Gerry Adams who was never in the IRA he still says, cleared the way for his deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald to become president of Sinn Fein.
Ahead of her elevation, much had been made of her potential to increase the party’s appeal in middle-class Ireland and to become players in future governments. She did not get off to the most inclusive of starts by concluding her first leader’s speech with the cry of “up the Republic, up the rebels, agus tiocfaidh ár lá”.
Her use of a slogan long associated with the violence, murder and terror of the IRA caused predictable controversy but she defended it a week later.
“I was setting out things that I believe passionately in things like social progress, social justice, shared prosperity. A new Ireland. And for me to utter the words ‘tiocfaidh ár lá’ refers absolutely to that vision of a new Ireland. And I know for some people that sounds like a harking to the past, for me it absolutely is not.”
However, there is a strong sense as the year ends, the project is not going well, and the catastrophic failure of Liadh Ní Riada’s presidential campaign was a major black mark in the new leader’s copybook.
So too was the loss of Carol Nolan and Peadar Tóibín over the abortion issue. Mr Tóibín has since moved to establish his own new 32-county project.
Even before polls closed, those opposed to the referendum were conceding defeat. Yet no one foresaw the margin of victory which emerged in exit polls that night.
Amid jubilant scenes, in Dublin Castle, the historic result was confirmed. In the end, 66.4% voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hailed the resounding Yes vote to repeal the Eighth as a “culmination of a quiet revolution” over the last 10 or 20 years.
In the 48 hours after the result, two of Ireland’s leading bishops conceded the Catholic Church is now a “minority force”.
Another year, another ministerial resignation. Last year, it was the high drama of Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s departure which spared the country a snap general election. This year, it was Communications Minister Denis Naughten who was forced to fall on his sword over his meetings with David McCourt, head of the sole remaining bidder in the country’s broadband plan.
Having got himself into hot water earlier this year over contacts with a lobbyist on behalf of Independent News and Media (INM) over its proposed takeover of Celtic Media, Mr Naughten escaped after being granted a “fool’s pardon.”
However, following media reports of a meeting between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt in New York appeared, the then minister insisted he had done no wrong. The opposition was not convinced and ultimately more meetings emerged. Mr Naughten was confronted by his Taoiseach, who was not impressed and told him he did not have confidence in him so he resigned in dramatic circumstances in the Dáil.
“The Taoiseach does not have confidence in me,” he said. Mr Naughten said he was left in a difficult position, where the opposition had not called for him to step aside, nor had the Taoiseach, but saied he had to reflect himself.
“Do I wait for that decision myself, to resign, or do I wait for someone else to make that decision for me?”
He said the outcome “is more about opinion polls than telephone polls. It’s more about optics than fibre optics”.
Independent Minister Shane Ross’s Judicial Appointments Bill certainly proved to be divisive.
Introduced in 2016, it has become one of the slowest pieces of legislation ever to go through the Oireachtas.
Following a bruising committee stage, facing opposition from Fianna Fáil’s spokesman for the Law Library, Jim O’Callaghan, the bill had become a mess.
Enter the attorney general. At a lunch event in Dublin’s Buswells Hotel, Seamus Woulfe, who is the legal advisor to the Cabinet, let fly at the state of the bill because of opposition amendments.
He said the bill resembled a “dog’s dinner” and needed significant work to be viable. Mr Woulfe said that many of the amendments made by the Opposition were “contradictory, inconsistent and unconstitutional.”
“Among a whole myriad of amendments which they made which make the bill a complete dog’s dinner at the moment because a number of the amendments are contradictory, inconsistent and unconstitutional,” he said.
A short time later, following some work by the attorney general and Mr Ross, the transport minister hit back, saying the bill was in great shape.
Mr Ross, in an interview with the Irish Examiner, said the bill will be passed, despite the best efforts of the Law Library.
“Those have been reversed and the dog’s dinner has become a plate of caviar and oysters. It is now pretty well sorted,” said Mr Ross.
The bill has not yet passed the Seanad.
In the height of summer, we reported that senior Fine Gael ministers were becoming alarmed at the party’s ‘posh boy’ image, typified by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
Several Cabinet colleagues were “angry” with Mr Murphy’s inability to turn the housing crisis around, with some saying it is the greatest threat to the party’s chances of retaining power.
The public is angry at Fine Gael over the failure to deal with the housing issue and the party must heed that anger, said MEP Mairead McGuinness. Her party, she said, must listen to criticisms around its failings on housing and its ‘posh boy’ image or risk a backlash.
McGuinness said: “I think we should heed what has been written [in the Irish Examiner]. I have this view myself around housing. The public is angry and we should listen to that anger.
Mr Murphy, who refused to return from his summer holidays despite images of a family sleeping in a Garda station, said his background was not a factor in his ability to do his job.
However, the tag has stuck and Mr Murphy has endured a torrid time in office.
During the summer, Labour leader Brendan Howlin found himself at the receiving end of an attempted heave by a band of unhappy county councillors.
Fourteen Labour councillors sought an urgent meeting with leader Brendan Howlin to discuss his future. The unhappy councillors sent the letter by email to Mr Howlin to seek his departure from office.
A number of councillors including bright hope Martina Genockey resigned in protest but Mr Howlin was not for turning. Some of those seeking change called for Alan Kelly to become leader.
Mr Kelly said criticisms of the leadership should be given a hearing. Mr Howlin refused to meet the malcontents ahead of the party’s conference in Drogheda, Co Louth where he faced them down.
The leader faced fresh calls to go in a meeting overheard by the media but politely declined. Bruised and battered but Mr Howlin survived.
Mr Varadkar in early December moved to deny he got free food and drink at a Kylie Minogue concert at the 3Arena in Dublin, having been branded a “spoilt brat”.
A Facebook post which was circulated online claimed the Taoiseach and his entourage, along with two undercover members of an Garda Síochána were shown to a VIP bar at the venue where they had drinks and food. The post went on to say that Mr Varadkar went to pay but was told that the drinks and food were on the house.
The poster also took issue with the fact that Mr Varadkar or his guests could not “find it in their hearts” to leave a tip to their server.
This prompted Mr Varadkar to take to his Twitter account to deny the version of events as had been portrayed.
“I’ve been made aware of a post on social media saying I had a free meal at a concert the other night. This is not true. There was no meal, we only had drinks and I paid. I have the receipt to prove it too,” he tweeted.
Then, the accusatory message on Facebook was withdrawn and replaced by a grovelling mea culpa by a Mr Pol Ó Muireadhaigh.
“Just to clarify I was sent a story about Leo Varadkar TD this morning and shared it in good faith. It now appears that it was inaccurate and I really should have checked before sharing,” he said.
2018 was also the year of history as Michael D Higgins became the first sitting president to contest an election for a second term since Éamon de Valera did in 1966.
While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were content to leave it to the incumbent, Sinn Féin and others felt the post should be contested but did little or anything about it until too late.
With speculation mounting throughout the year that Michael D was looking for a second term, attention turned to the spending of his office.
During the summer, the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee chairman Sean Fleming revealed in the Irish Examiner his plans to examine the spending of the Áras, which is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite accusations of being a kangaroo court, the PAC discovered that oversight of an annual €317,000 tax-free allowance was deficient.
The spending of the President went on to become one of the major issues of the campaign.
Ultimately, the six candidates who contested the post were Mr Higgins, 2011 runner-up Sean Gallagher, senator Joan Freeman, Peter Casey, Gavin Duffy and Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada.
While there was some surprise that Mr Gallagher was minded to stand again, it was utterly startling that three former Dragons Den hosts felt they were worthy of standing to be President.
Amid initial speculation that Mr Casey and Mr Duffy were trojan horses for Mr Gallagher, it turned out not to be so. The trio was attacked for their wealth repeatedly by Joan Freeman, who painted herself as a modest woman who just happened to take a €130,000 loan from her boyfriend of 40 years ago.
His controversial company’s fines at the hands of US authorities raised some eyebrows but it ultimately counted for little as she, Mr Duffy and Mr Gallagher failed to make an impact on the campaign.
From rank outsider to runner-up, Peter Casey managed to become the ‘wow’ story of the lacklustre race.
From offering Ms Freeman a loan on better terms than her former boyfriend, to attacking Michael D’s use of the Government jet, Mr Casey was making a lot of noise in a bid to make himself relevant. However, it was his comments about Travellers to Independent.ie’s ‘Floating Voter’ podcast which changed everything.
He faced calls to pull out of the race after claiming Travellers should not be recognised as an ethnic minority because they are “basically people camping in someone else’s land”.
The businessman launched a lengthy attack on the community, arguing: “They are not paying their fair share of taxes in society.”
History was made last year when the Dáil gave formal recognition to Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the State.
However, Mr Casey said: “That’s a load of nonsense. They are not from Romany or whatever.”
When challenged about his views, Mr Casey doubled down, saying the arrival of Travellers in an area “devastates the prices of the houses”.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. Your house price doesn’t start going through the roof as soon as you get two dozen Travellers moving in down the street from you,” he said.
Cue outrage from the left but what is clear is that his comments struck a chord with a large portion of society.
While Michael D Higgins’s victory was never in doubt, taking 55% of the vote winning on the first count, Mr Casey defied the odds taking 23.3% of the vote. Mr Gallagher and Ms Ní Riada each took just 6.4%, Ms Freeman got 6% while Mr Duffy crashed and burned, taking just 2.2% of the vote.
In the wake of his new-found fame, Mr Casey had some fun speculating he would not only seek to join Fianna Fáil but seek to take it over. Fianna Fáil said no. Mr Casey was later spotted chatting to Shane Ross at the inauguration fuelling chat that he would be about to join the Independent Alliance. Mr Ross, under pressure from Finian McGrath and Kevin Boxer Moran, was forced to slap down the approach.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe prides himself on being the class prefect, a safe pair of hands.
However, his halo took some battering in the wake of his third full budget where he oversaw a massive increase in spending totalling €5.6bn.
He bottled it when it came to introducing a carbon tax under pressure from his backbenchers and was only able to fully balance his books because of an unforeseen spike in corporation tax receipts.
The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council strongly criticised Budget 2019, saying spending growth goes beyond safe levels, leaving the country exposed in another downturn.
It accused Mr Donohoe of pumping up spending while failing to control healthcare spending when it should be planning for the “inevitable” hard times.
“Repeated failures to prevent unbudgeted spending increases leave the public finances exposed,” chair Seamus Coffey warned.
Mr Donohoe strongly defended his budget in the face of such criticism that is “imprudent”.
While he said he will take the warnings very seriously, he said the increase in spending is far less than during the Celtic Tiger years.
“If you look at what has happened in government expenditure and current government expenditure, between 2014 and 2019 it has increased by 20%. Across the same time period of our boom, it increased by 57%.”
Ahh, new politics isn’t it great. One of the reforms in 2016 was the abolition of the legislation guillotine which allowed the Government to rush new laws through the Oireachtas without debate.
With it gone, as we have seen this year, a small but vocal group of TDs, should they wish, can delay the passage of legislation substantially.
Controversial bills like the Road Traffic Bill (with its new lower drink driving limits), the Judicial Appointments Bill and the abortion legislation were all subject to prolonged delays by a small number of TDs and senators.
Mr Varadkar got himself in trouble when he vented his fury in early December.
“There is an effective filibuster in this House by rural Independents on the abortion bill and a filibuster in the Seanad by urban Independents on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill.
“Those filibusters are slowing the passage of all legislation and making it very difficult for us to the job the people elected us to do.”
This drew a sharp response from Mattie McGrath: “I was not going to raise this but I have to refute that allegation that we are delaying anything. We are doing our democratic job here. We had no pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. I appeal to the Taoiseach to withdraw his disgusting remarks from yesterday when he said that we were filibustering this Bill. We are not. Check the record. Some members of Deputy Boyd Barrett’s own party are using their seven minutes and their two minutes. We are not and we are entitled to put down amendments.”
Not for the first year, the name of Maurice McCabe at times came to dominate the political agenda.
The publication of the third interim report of the Disclosures Tribunal by judge Peter Charleton made for shocking reading as to what Mr McCabe and his family were forced to endure by organs of the State.
Politically, Fine Gael did its best to use the report to say that former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald was “totally vindicated” but the Opposition took issue with that.
The judge did state that she acted selflessly in resigning which meant a general election was avoided but Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan and Mary Lou McDonald said she was forced to resign because the Dáil was told inaccurate information on several occasions and rejected that she was vindicated.
Not that long after the arduous battle over abortion, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had to deal with more internal strife. In November, he was forced to sack Galway West TD Eamon Ó Cuív from a senior frontbench post, after it had appeared he had decided to spare him.
Martin relieved Mr Ó Cuív of his role as rural affairs spokesman after he and senator Mark Daly were involved in an attempt to launch a candidate to run for the party in next year’s Northern Ireland local elections, against the wishes of headquarters.
The party released a statement confirming Mr Ó Cuív’s sacking a day after Mr Daly was sacked from his position as Seanad party deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesman. The two men met after Mr Martin had already demoted Mr Daly and Mr Martin was willing to allow Mr Ó Cuív remain in his post, believing Mr Daly was “the chief instigator” of the unauthorised launch of councillor Sorcha McAnaspey. Yet, it has emerged during his meeting with his leader, Mr Ó Cuív is said that he was fully aware that an election launch was planned. Mr Martin concluded that he had no option but to sack him from the party’s Dáil frontbench.
After weeks of speculation, Independent TD Sean Canney left the Independent Alliance group of TDs in early May over a row with his ‘friend’ Kevin Boxer Moran and the rotation of the junior OPW minister post.
Amid sharp rows with Shane Ross and others, Mr Canney said he would continue to support the Government on issues of confidence and budgetary matters.
When the Fine Gael-led minority administration took office in May 2016, they decided with a coin toss that Mr Canney should take the job first for one year. Mr Moran took over last June.
Mr Canney maintained that the ministerial post should revert back to him, while Mr Moran, a Longford- Westmeath deputy, believed the agreement was that Mr Canney would have the job for one year only.
The issue was settled in Mr Moran’s favour last month.
Mr Canney spoke of his disappointment that the original deal to rotate the junior ministry position with Mr Moran had not been maintained.
“Rotating means rotating. The deal was that the position was to be rotated.”
Following the resignation of Denis Naughten, Mr Canney found himself back in ministerial office yet free of the shackles of the Alliance.
After the historic referendum, the focus shifted back to the Oireachtas.
When it did make it into the Dáil, the legislative battle over the abortion legislation began when the Dáil’s health committee faced 180 proposed amendments to the Bill.
The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 made slow progress in the Dáil. Chaotic scenes were regular occurrences as proceedings repeatedly descended into farce. Speakers were interrupted on several occasions with shouting matches breaking out.
On one occasion, things got very heated when Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, a vehement pro-choice advocate railed against her rivals by saying: “We won. Ye lost… it must be hurting.”
Having left her party over this issue, Offaly’s Carol Nolan got emotional in a bitter exchange with Louise O’Reilly.
She complained that “not one part” of the debate had been civilised.
On December 13, the bill to allow for the introduction of abortion services passed all stages of the Oireachtas to facilitate services starting on January 1.
You gotta hand to Leo, he won 12 months more in office without having to give anything away.
The original three-year deal of confidence and supply came to an end with the passage of the budget in October after months of the Taoiseach playing footsie with Micheál Martin.
Letters were exchanged and duly leaked to the media, leading some to conclude that Mr Varadkar was simply trying to create the landscape to enable him to call an early election if he wanted it.
He was certainly coming under pressure from his ministers in the summer and early autumn to cut and run given the large gap Fine Gael held over Fianna Fáil in the polls.
Alas it was not to be and seven weeks of review and talks culminated in Mr Martin announcing to the Dáil that he was willing to agree to continue to facilitate the Government until the Brexit crisis resolved itself.
However, the truth is, Mr Martin had no other alternative but to play for time and far from acting in the national interest as he claimed, his move was far more primal than that — self-preservation.