Facing a global recession, the new government must also tackle housing, finance, Brexit, civil liberties, and climate, writes Political Correspondent
Finalising a programme for government proved tough, but it’s just the first of many hurdles this new three-way (plus independents) coalition will have to clear.
This new government is facing into a severe recession, with the economy predicted to shrink by as much as 7.1% as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Not to mention huge issues in housing and health that were major problems even before anyone had heard the term Covid.
Legislatively, the only major law due to be renewed is the Offences Against the State Act, which runs out at the end of June.
This will be first on the list of priorities for the new Government, and where the party’s ideological differences will rear their heads once more.
The Green Party has in the past been against the act, with both Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin voting against its renewal, citing issues around human rights and the continued operation of the Special Criminal Court.
A UN special rapporteur has said that this kind of counter-terrorism laws which contravene human rights “can further entrench cycles of violence and can lead to radicalisation”. However, the Government has argued they are essential in the fight against terrorism and organised crime in Ireland.
During February’s election, Mr Ryan signalled a U-turn on the issue, stating his TDs would now vote in favour due to concerns over the Drogheda gangland feud. However, it is not certain that the 12 Green TDs would go along with the vote without putting up some form of a fight for reform of the law.
Another pressing issue will be how long Covid-19 social welfare supports, such as the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme, will continue for.
Both have been extended until the end of August, but there will likely be debate over if they should be extended further for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own during the pandemic — a suggestion that Fine Gael is likely to balk at, saying that fiscal “prudence” will be the name of the game for Leo Varadkar’s party when it comes to helping claw the State out of the recession.
In the same vein, Project Ireland 2040 will present another major challenge. The previous government’s long-term overarching strategy and National Development Plan has already been discussed at length during the coalition talks, and it has reportedly been agreed that the project will have to be reviewed as some of the promised infrastructure will have to be scrapped as the country refocuses its finances.
However, determining which projects are to be sacrificed is likely to cause huge upset, especially within the Independent groups needed for government, who are fighting for regional development, and will not countenance their regions’ projects being rejected.
Likewise, Ireland’s abortion legislation is up for review in May 2021, and the Greens have been vocal about their wish to see the implementation of new legislation on safe zones outside medical facilities providing terminations, of which Fine Gael health minister Simon Harris has previously spoken in favour.
However, the Greens have also called for removing the mandatory three-day wait for those seeking terminations, an issue that may cause further debate within the three parties and the wider public. Simon Harris has previously rejected the suggestions made before the Oireachtas health committee by doctors, who said the three-day waiting period was unnecessary and without medical reason, and would not accept amendments to tackle the issue two years ago.
Housing, a major issue during the talks and the general election, and the country as a whole, will be high on the list of priorities for any new cabinet, and one where Fianna Fáil are keen to make a splash.
The challenge will be in finding agreement among the three parties about what size and scale a new public housing programme will take, and issues over selling public land to private developers, which the Greens have already made clear they’re uncomfortable with.
Although homeless numbers have continued to decrease during the pandemic, with the reemergence of tourism, and a resulting spike in those seeking Airbnb and short lets, it’s envisaged that many of those who have found temporary accommodation during the pandemic will once more be put at risk of homelessness.
Brexit hasn’t gone away yet either, and protecting Ireland’s interests during the next phase will require a continued whole-of-government effort as Britain has ruled out any extension.
Implementation of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and preparations for the end of the transition period will take up a lot of cabinet time, as future partnership negotiations are unlikely to get easier as Britain grapples with its own recession.
The threat of a no trade deal remains as the UK backtracks on issues important to Ireland including fisheries, competition rules, governance, and police co-operation, and will likely come down to the wire as the transition period runs out on October 31.
The climate emergency is also likely to be key, as this government grapples with what a “just transition” will look like. Ireland has committed to legally binding emissions reduction targets by 2020 and 2030.
Committing to a 20% reduction from 2005 emission levels by 2020, and a 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. Ireland will not meet the 2020 target, and is not likely to make 2030’s without a serious climate policy.
The use of public funds to buy emissions allowances in order to comply with the targets provides no domestic benefit, and would impose another cost to the exchequer, a bill Ireland could do without.
A delicate balancing act will be needed to ensure that Green Party members of the cabinet are satisfied that the government is doing enough to reduce emissions in every area, including housing and transport, in order to meet its goals. Climate is a red line issue for the Green Party and one where they are least likely to compromise, considering one of the major reasons they believe that going into government is necessary is that time is running out for the country to do something about our lagging climate performance.
However, during what’s projected to be the worst recession since the Great Depression, finding money for green investment is not likely to be the first priority for a government which is already talking about paying back the deficit in the second half of its term.