Minister Mary shows promise as Micheál offers a breath of fresh air

DÁIL Eireann will rise for the Christmas recess today meaning that it is time for the annual prizegiving. In the spirit of goodwill to all political men and women, here are this columnist’s Tallyman Awards for 2003.

Political Image of the Year

All of the images which are most appropriate for nomination in this category arise from the Iraq war. In February and March coverage of the preparations for and fighting of this war dominated the media. Now, in December, the capture of Saddam is the lead story. One of the images that sticks in my mind from 2003 was the visible ageing of Tony Blair as he tried to persuade his country of the merits of the war. However, the image which sums up the war and the political year was that of Ali Ismail Abbas, the 12-year-old boy who was badly burnt and had both of his arms blown away. He was the only survivor of a blast which killed his mother and seven other relatives in their sleep.

Political Loss of the Year

Last year I cited the loss from politics of Alan Dukes in the 2002 election as the most significant event in this category. This year, the untimely death of Eamon Leahy, SC, in July, was a loss to politics and the law. There has been a long established tradition of individual members of the Irish Bar making a contribution to public service through direct and indirect involvement in the political process. All the main political parties have benefited from this tradition. The benefits of Leahy's contribution, particularly in the area of criminal legislation, will be seen for decades to come.

Minister of the Year

I have a soft spot for unsung heroes, and especially for politicians who do not see it necessary constantly to publicise their own achievements. For that reason and others, I am nominating Mary Coughlan. She is a new minister getting into her stride. She brings her training as a social worker, her experience of 15 years on the backbenches, and her instincts as a Donegal politician (and as a mother) to bear on the complex code that is our social welfare system. She is a genuine left of centre politician who has not been afraid to stand over changes to the system which are designed to close off abuses and target resources more effectively. She has also had some thought provoking views on the direction of our society of which we should hear more.

Opposition Frontbencher of the Year

Pat Rabbitte won this award last year and he has been solid and occasionally colourful in 2003. Enda Kenny is improving but has some distance to travel. Fine Gael is still underserved by its frontbench. There are a few exceptions. The environment spokesperson Bernard Allen (notwithstanding his paranoia about this columnist) has had some interesting things to say, particularly about local government reform. Of the frontbench newcomers, Olwyn Enright has been by far the most impressive. However, the overall winner in this category for 2003 must be Richard Bruton. He is a strong and forensic Dáil performer and, as finance spokesperson, has begun to set out a distinct positioning for his party.

Government Backbencher of the Year

The winner in this category is Pat Carey, the Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin North West. Carey works very hard on his strong Finglas base as well as being an independent-minded and effective Dáil contributor. Somehow he has also found the time to specialise in European affairs. He was required to spend a lot of time in Brussels in the first half of the year as an alternate delegate to the European convention which drafted the first text of the constitution which EU leaders are now struggling to finalise. Carey is one to watch in 2004 and beyond.

Opposition Backbencher of the Year

Most of the newcomers on the opposition benches from the independent and small parties have failed to make any real impact. Joe Higgins won this award last year. In 2003 he has been relatively quiet since the bin tax protest stretched the patience of the soft middle class portion of his support. The Sinn Féin deputies in the Dáil have proved unimpressive a mere shadow of their Northern Ireland leadership team. So we must turn again to Fine Gael for the nominee in this category. Damien English, the young Meath deputy, gets my nod for effort. Still maturing politically he has a strong political instinct and has the most refreshing perspective of the newcomers.

Good Law of the Year

I make no apology for nominating the smoking ban for this award. Although the ban will not come into place until the spring of 2004 the regulations banning smoking in workplace, including pubs, stands out as the most significant political achievement of 2003. Micheál Martin's persistence in overcoming the well-resourced tobacco lobby and its fellow travellers showed a long-term view which is all too rare in modern Irish politics. Thousands of lives will be saved.

Bad Law/Policy Decision of the Year

I am opting for a bad policy decision in this category the decision to allow the US army to transport its troops and weapons through Shannon for the Iraq war. Hundreds of planeloads had gone through the airport even before the issue came to public knowledge in mid January. When the US broke with the UN's Iraq strategy in March, Ireland continued to provide the facilities. I am convinced that when looked at in a historical context, this decision of the Government and Dáil will be seen as having been motivated by unfounded fears of short-term economic cost. It leaves us belittled and beholden in international affairs, and has permanently undermined our claim to have a strong, independent and pro-UN voice.

Issue of the Year

Domestically, the fortunes of the economy, the peace process and elections in Northern Ireland were among the most significant issues. However, my nomination goes to the question of the potential reintroduction of third-level fees. Noel Dempsey deserves a mention for putting it up to our political system by placing this issue on the agenda in May albeit fleetingly. Too few issues which genuinely concern how our society should be organised and resourced are debated frankly

Most Forgettable Event of the Year

Sadly, Sars caused hundreds of deaths in China and in a handful of other countries. However, despite the sensationalism and hysteria of much of the media during the post Easter silly season, Sars never came to Ireland. Who now remembers the media feeding frenzy which surrounded the two 'suspected cases' in April? It was all over the top and out of perspective.

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