As old guard rides off into the sunset, can there be new dawn for Coalition?

WHAT a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, the boys and girls of the Oireachtas trooped off for their summer holliers with the division bells for historic legislation ringing in their ears.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed in the dying days of that Dáil term.

It had been, for some, a bruising affair, that saw a rump of Fine Gael parliamentarians jump ship, holding on, for dear life, to their consciences. For the denizens of the Labour Party, the passing of the legislation was a policy victory, something to wrap up and call their own. Eamon Gilmore, in particular, was chuffed.

All has changed, changed utterly. Gilmore now loiters on the backbenches, his mantle whipped away by she whom some of the party grandees regarded as the bogeywoman of the Government, Joan Burton. The changing of the guard in the Labour party happened in a Dáil term that was choc-a-bloc with shake-ups and controversies. New Labour has been renewed into Newest Labour, in time for the next election.

What other tidings came dropping over the last year? Well, it began as it meant to go on. September’s turning of the leaves was barely done, when Enda Kenny announced that he was taking back the nation for the people. At Fine Gael’s National Conference on October 12, the Taoiseach told the faithful that the Government’s first objective was about to be met.

“Tonight I can confirm that Ireland is on track to exit the EU-IMF bailout on December 15. And we won’t go back,” he said. This was a moment of triumph for Kenny. And yet, at that conference, two fronts opened up that would bode ill for the Government. Kenny’s announcement heralded the achievement of the Government’s main policy plank. The only problem was, it now appears that there was no plan in place for the freed nation.

The other harbinger of dark times ahead that weekend was an eight-year-old boy named Ronan Woodhouse, who was there with his mother to protest the revocation of his medical card, despite having been born with Down’s Syndrome, among other special needs.

The heartless manner in which Ronan’s family had been treated was a story that was to recur again and again all the way to the local and European elections.

The budget was the first indication that medical cards were going to become a major political currency over the year. The objectionable phrase “medical card probity” was introduced to the world, as it was announced that €113m in savings would be made from relieving over 100,000 of their cards. The designated figure said it all. Was €113m a figure plucked just to balance the books? Was that how the country was being run? James Reilly assured all that there would be no problem. “Anyone who is legally entitled has nothing to worry about. They are not going to lose their cards,” he said. The weeks and months that followed were to mock that particular assertion.

The Troika left town on the appointed day, and then we were on our own, all set to gather the moss of a rolling stone.

The New Year was barely rung in by the time Alan Shatter began to look uncomfortable. The whistleblower saga had rumbled on for over a year. Now, after a cack-handed attempt to deal with it all, Sergeant Maurice McCabe was due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee.

Shatter did what he could to prevent that scenario, but little by little, it became obvious that his political antenna was kaput.

The Dáil saw plenty of the action, but one memorable contribution came in February from Mick Wallace, who, along with Clare Daly, did much of the running on Shatter-gate.

In an impassioned speech, Wallace addressed Shatter directly: “Minister, you look up here at us and you say ‘how dare those people with their long hair and raggy jeans have the audacity’ to challenge you. Well I want to tell you something. The people of Wexford that elected me to come in here, didn’t elect me to come in here and approve of your behaviour. They put me in here to challenge it. It’s time for you to go, Minister. And bring the Commissioner with you.”

Wallace’s suggestion was to prove prophetic. But he did leave one question hanging. Having used the plural in describing “long hair and raggy jeans” people, who, apart from his good self, was he including? The Garda controversies dragged on all the way to May, eating away at the Government’s capital, and sapping energy. In the end, Shatter had to go and despite admiration for his ability in Fine Gael, there was a large sigh of relief when he did. Too much defending in vain make’s a stone of the politician’s heart.

Water charges was the other big issue to dominate.

A particular furore blew up over the spending of €50m on consultants before a child in the house was washed. Big Phil Hogan assured the country that it was nothing to do with him. “I don’t micro-manage what happens in Irish Water,” he said.

The people spoke on May 23. They said they were cheesed off with the Government in general and thoroughly fed up with the Labour Party. Sinn Féin was the big winner, landing three European seats with candidates who were barely known. That signalled the end for Gilmore, and the winding down of the term was thereafter dominated by the sideshow of the Labour leadership battle, culminating in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle.

What a difference a year makes. You won’t have James Reilly to kick around anymore. Big Phil is in clover. Ruairi Quinn departed with grace, Pat Rabbitte not so much. Others just slipped off.

We now have a Cabinet of bright shining faces, all off on holidays with their buckets and spades. They should enjoy it, because the next term doesn’t look like it’s going to be a picnic either.


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