Political year in review: 2016 edition

2016 has been a year to remember and not for all the right reasons. Political editor Daniel McConnell looks back on some key events.

Political year in review: 2016 edition

Commemoration fatigue

Heading into 2016, the centenary of the ill-fated Easter Week Rising was on a lot of people’s minds.

In the end, not even Luas strikes could prevent the main event from passing off successfully on Easter Monday.

Certainly though, by the end of it, poor President Michael D Higgins must have been sick of laying wreaths and listening to the The Last Post.

They came so thick and fast, there was even congestion at Glasnevin Cemetery between the official commemoration for fallen hero Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the Sinn Féin event.

Remember, we have a decade of this to get through!

Banking inquiry farce

The political year began in ignominy with the €5m Oireachtas Banking Inquiry descending into farce. After months of hearings and crippling legal restrictions, huge chunks of its final report had to be jettisoned at the 11th hour amid infighting among the committee.

The end result was a report as potent as a eunuch. Despite committing almost 18 months to the inquiry, several committee members, including chairman Labour’s Ciaran Lynch, saw their tenure in Leinster House ended by the electorate just a few short weeks later.

Ultimately, the inquiry found that senior executives and directors across financial institutions were responsible for the failure of banks during the financial crisis. The committee was unable to make findings of fact against any individual: paragraph 9 of the conclusions to chapter 1 of the report comes closest to mirroring the findings of the British parliamentary inquiry into the failure of British banks in 2013.

The UK inquiry named 13 individuals, all either chief executives or chairmen of six British banks. In comparison, the Irish inquiry report found no single event or decision led to the failure of the banks in the lead-up to the banking crisis.

Saving Grace

Following reports in this newspaper, the HSE was forced to issue a grovelling apology to the family and carers of ‘Grace’ — the intellectually disabled woman who was subjected to horrific abuse in a Waterford foster home — and to the Public Accounts Committee, which it misled.

The controversy forced the announcement of the general election to be delayed by a day to allow the HSE be grilled by angry PAC members.

Then minister Kathleen Lynch announced a commission of inquiry, which has not yet started.

General Election

But one event more than any other dominated the political agenda in 2016 — the general election.

Having been stymied by then tánaiste Joan Burton from calling an early election the previous November, Enda Kenny finally called time on the 31st Dáil on February 2.

Despite leaving with the largest majority in the history of the State, and having saved the country from utter destruction (they liked to tell us), they found the public in unforgiving and vengeful mood.

This, coupled with disastrous election campaigns saw Fine Gael and Labour haemorrhage 56 seats between them.

General Election - Fine Gael crash and burn

Despite having all the aces up his sleeve, Enda Kenny and his team of Fine Gael acolytes stumbled from one catastrophe to another.

His cack-handed announcement about the dissolution of the Dáil, where he walked out before allowing any other leader respond, came off as arrogant rather than decisive.

Later that day, his comments about people not understanding jargon only reinforced an image of a Fine Gael which was out of touch.

Its main campaign slogan of “Let’s Keep the Recovery Going” was all wrong, while Michael Noonan’s dodgy numbers relating to his “fiscal space” undermined his Yoda-like image.

Education Minister Richard Bruton of Fine Gael celebrates after winning a seat in Dublin Bay North on February 28 last. His party suffered massive losses.

A succession of bad polls during the campaign put the Blueshirts under pressure while Fianna Fáil were soaring. Kenny was to compound the damage by referring to the people as “whingers” in his home town of Castlebar. He later retracted the comment, but alas it was too late. Fine Gael lost 26 seats, including those of deputy leader James Reilly, minister Jimmy Deenihan, minister Tom Hayes, and former minister Alan Shatter.

One note of positivity was for minister Paschal Donohoe, who against all the odds, kept his seat. Having lost two thirds of his 2011 support base in a constituency redraw, Donohoe pounded the pavements and secured the second of two seats in a very Left-leaning Dublin Central.

General Election - Labour wipe-out

If the election was bad for Fine Gael, it was worse for their outgoing partners in government. Deputy leader Alan Kelly got himself into bother by saying “power is a drug” in an interview with the Sunday Independent.

Hopes of a late rally sank when Joan Burton fell out of a boat in a foot and a half of water in Kilkenny during the floods. Having arrived in 2011 with 37 seats, they returned in 2016 with just seven; with many bright young things left weeping as they crashed out in defeat.

Kelly’s modest explosion into orgasmic ecstasy on securing the last seat in Tipperary was, ahem, interesting to say the least. Burton resigned and was replaced by Brendan Howlin, only after he and the other TDs refused to allow Kelly contest the position. Ah, democracy in action.

General Election - Healy-Rae Party

One of, if not the most audacious occurrences was the election of not one Healy-Rae in Kerry, but two. Michael who had succeeded the great and sadly departed Jackie in 2011 was joined by his brother Danny on the ticket, after they read the tea leaves and foresaw Fine Gael and Labour blood.

In an amazing spectacle, the two arrived for the first day of the 32nd Dáil only to stop the traffic on Kildare Street by holding an impromptu céilí, cheered on by hundreds of spectators.

Danny went on to cause some controversy by insisting the story of Noah’s Ark is among the “facts” on which he bases his views that climate change is bogus.

In the Dáil in May, Mr Healy-Rae dismissed the notion of man-made climate change, saying, “God above is in charge of the weather.”

General Election – Hung Dail/Interregnum

Labour’s wipe-out, Fine Gael’s collapse combined with a resurgent Fianna Fáil and a swathe of new independents made the return of the previous government impossible. It also made the formation of an alternative administration almost equally tricky.

Labour lost 30 seats from what they got in 2011; Fine Gael lost 26; while Fianna Fáil went from 20 seats to 43.

It quickly became apparent that some form of arrangement between the old enemies — the Blueshirts and the Soldiers of Destiny — would have to be reached if a second election was to be avoided.

For more than 70 days, several false starts and a seemingly never-ending courtship was played out to a nonplussed public. Enda Kenny adopted the status of a squatter, sorry I mean acting taoiseach, in Government Buildings, while doing his utmost to secure his re-election as head of government.

While Fine Gael played footsie with Fianna Fáil, they set about nailing down as many Independents as possible.

Katherine Zappone was the first to nail her colours to the mast. The so-called Rural Alliance fell apart with Denis Naughten going into Cabinet while Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Raes stayed out.

But the biggest obstacle to agreement was the “Shane Féin”/Sunday Independent Alliance.

Ross, in his cutting Sunday column, described the talks process and referred to Kenny as a political corpse, which upset a lot of the Kennyistas, who were keen to vent their fury in a bid to land promotion.

Eventually, based on a three-budget deal with Fianna Fáil, the Government was formed in chaotic circumstances on May 6. On the day, Fine Gael called a vote in the Dáil, thereby bouncing the Independent Alliance before they were ready to fully agree.

Then Ross revealed his portfolio to the media before it was announced in the Dáil, which is a big no-no. Michael Fitzmaurice decided to leave the Independent Alliance rather than dance with the devil.

Ultimately, with Fianna Fáil playing ball, the Government has a working majority of one — Michael Lowry.

General Election - Supply and Confidence/New Politics

Key to the whole minority Government is what is known as the “Supply and Confidence” deal with Fianna Fáil. They will not block the passage of important legislation and budgets in return for their priorities forming part of the Programme for Government.

In power but not in office is how Fianna Fáil, under a confident Micheál Martin, see themselves.

The first major pound of flesh to be extracted was water charges. Charges would be suspended for nine months (at least) to await the work of a Water Commission.

The big test was the budget, with Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath exercising a veto over the work of Paschal Donohoe and Michael Noonan.

Noonan decided not to cause any drama and announced his budget plans to Cabinet two weeks out, which leaked immediately to the media. Donohoe’s task, as the spending minister, was far more arduous and talks continued right up until the last minute.

But it passed, when many said it wouldn’t and the fragile Government lived to fight another day.

Enda v Shane on abortion

One of the first major flashpoints between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance was on the issue of abortion in July. They had had a row over water charges with junior Independent minister John Halligan telling Fine Gael to “shut their mouths” and stop the bullying of him and Finian McGrath.

But when the Dáil came to debate a bill proposed by Mick Wallace, all hell broke loose.

The alliance wanted a free vote as some of them have long campaigned and supported a liberalisation of the country’s abortion laws.

Fine Gael, either not wanting to hear them or still believing they were in government with Labour, refused to contemplate such a situation.

The Alliance for weeks said “this is our view, but we don’t want a row here”, but Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan were not for turning.

Then Attorney General Máire Whelan became embroiled in the row when she advised that the Wallace bill was unconstitutional. Ross said hers was just another legal opinion, which outraged his many media critics and several of his Cabinet colleagues.

A highly-charged debate saw Simon Harris, as health minister, walk the line of reform and the status quo with some skill, while new TD Kate O’Connell spoke of her own personal experience in moving terms.

In the end, a weakened Kenny was forced to relent and accede to a free vote. It turned out that the Wallace bill was roundly defeated, leaving many scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss was about.

Enda v Shane on neutrality and judges

Kenny and Ross would clash again very soon after this. This newspaper revealed how Ross blocked Kenny’s attempt to appoint former taoiseach John Bruton to a €270,000-a-year job in the European Investment Bank.

Ross, who is adamant about ending the system of crony appointments, said no and insisted that a selection process be put in place.

Kenny again was forced to relent but ultimately the selection process saw Kenny’s top economic adviser, Andrew McDowell, land the job. Ross felt he would not risk collapsing the Government over the matter, despite his unease, and allowed the nomination to proceed.

Yet, Ross and Kenny would go toe to toe on the issue of judicial appointments.

Ross told the Taoiseach he would not support the appointment of any new judges without new legislation. Ross said he wanted to remove the right of a minister to appoint judges directly.

Fine Gael, with all their friends in the Law Library, took great umbrage at this and sought to undermine Ross’s performance as transport minister.

Some pointed to the 36 vacancies on boards under his aegis as a damning indictment. But this quelled when it turned out it was the same number as Paschal Donohoe had left vacant as he moved out of Transport.

Ultimately, Kenny was forced to back down saying the Government would now prefer that all future appointments be made after the new legislation was introduced.

Legislation is pending and some judges have been appointed in the interim.

But Fine Gael did manage to get their own back a little bit on Ross and the Alliance over the matter of free votes.

The Alliance had sought a free vote on an opposition bill on neutrality, which caused fury among the Fine Gael ministers.

An almighty row at Cabinet ensued — with Kenny waving a copy of the Constitution at Ross saying no free vote could be considered.

A fudge was eventually arrived at and the matter was resolved, but the speed and scale of the row surprised many.

It seemed the Alliance had failed to flag the issue before Cabinet and Kenny felt he was being bounced into a position, which he apparently doesn’t like.

John Halligan and Waterford Hospital

It is fair to say the Government has sat easier with some members of the Independent Alliance than others.

OPW Minister, Sean Canney, and his co-driver, Minister in Waiting, Kevin “Boxer” Moran, are cock-a-hoop with themselves. The only problem is, will Canney be as happy to hand over the brief to Moran in May as agreed by the toss of a coin on the day the Government was formed.

Waterford minister John Halligan placed Waterford Hospital at the top of his list of priorities on entering Government and a lot of work went into securing his support.

However, Halligan has been a vocal critic of Fine Gael’s treatment of him and his colleagues on several occasions, to the frustration of many. Halligan is a man of conviction and he has made it clear that leaving government will not bother him should the commitments not be delivered.

At the end of the year, Halligan is still looking like he will walk from Government as Minister Simon Harris will not sanction a second cath lab at Waterford Hospital unless medical advice recommends it, which it hasn’t for now.

Seagulls and the Seanad

Two years ago, Senator Ned O’Sullivan caused a tizzy of a media storm with his declaration that the white birds had lost the run of themselves.

Last June, Fine Gael Senator Paul Coghlan swooped into the Oireachtas battle with the birds.

The veteran senator said the seagulls were wreaking havoc with their beaks in Dublin city centre where they are destroying plastic bags of litter.

He witnessed this in two locations close to Leinster House last night with litter strewn “all over the place”.

“This is terrible in the capital city. I thought it was disgraceful as tourists walked around the place after 11 o’clock last night,” he said.

Responding to Senator Coghlan’s comments, leader of the Seanad Jerry Buttimer said: “Senator Coghlan raised the issue of seagulls. I don’t know what minister I will bring in to have discussion on that but I think the issue you raised is a health one, an environmental one, a tourism one and an economic one. So I would be very happy to characterise all of them into one.”

Well, I am glad the priorities of the Upper House were straight!

Rumble in Rio

When this newspaper broke the news of Irish boxer, Michael O’Reilly, failing a drugs test on the eve of the Rio Olympics, many had a bad feeling about how the games would go for Ireland.

It turned out to be a disaster from a boxing point of view.

But the arrest of Irishman Kevin Mallon over an alleged ticket controversy involving the Irish Olympic body was the start of a more serious scandal.

Shane Ross demanded answers of Pat Hickey and the Olympic Council of Ireland and a showdown between the two men in a Rio hotel took place.

Ross wanted an independent person to take part in the OCI’s probe, but was told to shag off by a truculent Hickey.

For three days, Ross was chastened while Hickey stood defiant, until his early morning arrest in the nude in his son’s room as a top European Olympic official.

Politically, Ross’s stance against Hickey was vindicated, given the arrest, and a government inquiry is now under way.

Hickey and Mallon both arrived home in time for Christmas but the charges remain to be faced.

Nama and Project Eagle

It is so boring and no one understands it but it is very important.

Awfully bad things happened relating to the sale of Nama’s Northern loan book. Inquiries galore have been commenced into it, including a major one by our Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In all seriousness, Nama went to war with the State’s auditor, the C&AG, after he concluded that the agency lost £190m (€220m) on the deal.

The report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Youghal’s finest, Seamus McCarthy, raised a number of concerns about the sale of the State agency’s Northern Ireland loan portfolio.

It drew a stinging rebuke from Nama, who accused him of a fundamental misunderstanding of how they did the calculations. Nama insisted it got the best price possible for the portfolio and has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

The case, as they say, continues.

Apple and the €13bn

If Nama was an unwelcome headache for the rarely seen Michael Noonan, then the EU’s Apple ruling that Ireland gave tech giant Apple €13bn in state aid was a disaster.

Ireland’s tax status has frequently been the subject of negative international criticism, referred to as a haven by some (all very shadowy and dodgy we are told), but Noonan says such negative commentary is incorrect.

But rather than jumping for joy that he was about to be the beneficiary of a €13bn bonanza from Apple, Noonan and the Government said the company’s money is no good here.

He said the Government would be appealing the EU’s decision, much to the consternation of the left.

Earlier this month, Apple and the EU went to war.

Apple and European Union competition watchdogs clashed on a public stage for the first time since regulators ordered Ireland to claw back a record-breaking €13bn ($13.9 billion) in back taxes from the iPhone maker.

The EU’s August decision is “seriously flawed” and implies that Apple products, such as its best-selling smartphones, are designed in the Irish city of Cork, rather than the US, a lawyer for the California-based tech giant argued during a state-aid conference in Copenhagen.

An EU official hit back, saying the company was creating a “very nice tax story”.

Michelle and her All-Ireland tickets

When Dublin and Mayo squared off in the first final in mid-September, the race for tickets was so intense that Croke Park had to rebuff requests from sitting members of the Upper House.

Ex-TD and Taoiseach’s appointee to the Seanad, Michelle Mulherin, took the hump and cried foul.

She complained to the GAA after failing to obtain any tickets for the All-Ireland final. She accused Croke Park of discriminating against unelected representatives, after being told her Seanad seat does not guarantee her two tickets for this weekend’s Dublin-Mayo showdown.

The GAA allows TDs from participating counties to buy two tickets at full price. Mulherin claims senators from participating counties were allowed to buy a ticket last year, but not this year.

“This isn’t about Michelle Mulherin, this is about a policy of the GAA at Croke Park, which is discriminating against senators in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Basically, every year, senators and TDs from competing counties could write in, send in a cheque to purchase a couple of tickets, and they were accommodated,” she complained.

A GAA spokesman said that it’s not true to say their ticketing rules have changed since the 2015 final, when Dublin dethroned champions Kerry.

“Every year we review our ticketing policy,” said a GAA spokesman.

When this newspaper broke the news of Irish boxer, Michael O’Reilly, failing a drugs test on the eve of the Rio Olympics, many had a bad feeling about how the games would go for Ireland.

Leo v Simon

Given Kenny’s pronouncement that he would not lead Fine Gael into another election, the tizziness and dizziness of excitement around who will replace him ramped up in 2016.

The race remains primarily a two-horse affair between workhorse Serious Simon and Show Pony Leo, it has been billed as.

If you want a pint, or tickets to the races, or your West Cork constituency office opened, Leo is your man, we hear.

In charge of a department which largely runs itself as a glorified ATM for welfare recipients, Leo has had time on his hands to plot his path to the leadership.

Serious Simon, on the other hand, has not played that game and was paying a price for it until his late slam dunk win over Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen on the rent certainty.

Unlike Leo, Serious Simon has been very busy trying to put out political fires on issues like water, housing, and bin charges.

Other names have been mentioned — like Frances Fitzgerald, Paschal Donohoe and even Simon Harris — but it remains a battle of the young Fine Gael beasts.

Donnelly quits the ‘Soc Dems’

An unlikely mix of three political personalities who couldn’t decide who was to be leader. Big egos and ever differing views of the world saw Stephen Donnelly part ways with Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall in early September.

The split within the Social Democrats that led to the departure of Stephen Donnelly dated back to the refusal by the party to enter government formation talks.

The Wicklow/East Carlow TD was keen to engage with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about the prospect of being in coalition. However, Mr Donnelly’s co-leaders — Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy — opposed the move.

The Irish version of conscious uncoupling.

Gerry and Brian Stack

Earlier this month, the son of murdered prison officer Brian Stack confronted Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at a party press conference in Dublin.

Brian Stack was shot by members of the Provisional IRA as he left a boxing match in Dublin in 1983. Nobody was ever convicted of his murder.

Austin Stack accused Adams of lying about what he knows in relation to the murder of his father. He called on Adams to hand over any information he has to the gardaí.

Addressing the accusations made against him, Adams said he reject utterly suggestions that he has told lies on the issue. Controversy engulfed the Sinn Féin leader for a few days but he is still standing.

The ending of his own leadership and that of an ailing Martin McGuinness is the major challenge facing the Shinners.

Garda Commissioner/ Maurice McCabe

The new Government was rocked several times this year by fresh allegations that the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan was aware of a campaign to destroy whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

Reports in this newspaper were the sparks for two separate rounds of controversy on this issue, which dominated the political agenda for more than a week in each case.

Enda Kenny and Frances Fitzgerald said such allegations are serious but unproven, hoping they would go away.

They didn’t and a judge-led inquiry has been established.

Shatter vindicated

Taoiseach Enda Kenny ordered the withdrawal of the Guerin Report into the handling of Garda whistleblower allegations, which forced the resignation of former justice minister Alan Shatter in 2014.

In a vindication of Mr Shatter, the withdrawal of the report was a major embarrassment for Mr Kenny, who all but forced the resignation of one of his most loyal supporters at the Cabinet table because of it.

“I spoke to the Attorney General and after consultation with her, I instructed the secretary general of my department to take down the Guerin Report from the website of my department,” said Kenny.

“Obviously, arising from the O’Higgins report and the decision of the Appeals Court there is no reason that it should be up on the website,” he added.

Shatter, as is his style, was gracious in victory.

“It should have not been necessary to take on the entire political establishment to ensure this does not happen again. Nor should I have been made a political pariah by those in leadership positions in Fine Gael,” he said.


One of two external political earthquakes to hit this year was the vote of our nearest neighbour to leave the EU on June 23.

After being bullied into holding the referendum, David Cameron fell on his sword within hours of the official result becoming known.

After weeks of the mainstream media saying it couldn’t happen, well it did.

Labour heartlands voted en masse to leave, clearly having seen no benefit to remaining.

The only problem is the leavers don’t have a plan as to what comes next.

Brexit means Brexit we are told by new un-elected PM Theresa “leather pants” May, but for us here we appear to be at a loss.

Enda Kenny has ruled out a Brexit minister and the Irish attitude appears to be to wait and see what Downing St decides and then we will make our views known.

From renewed treks across the border for cheap booze to uncertainty hitting farmers, Brexit is a looming catastrophe for little old Ireland, which now stands very isolated among its so-called friends in Europe.


Already feeling shaken after the Brexit vote, the election of The Donald in the US in November caused a week of mourning in some Irish homes and some newsrooms who ought to have known better.

Yes, he has said racist things. Yes, he is not a trained politician, yes he is a former bankrupt who refused to release his tax returns, but he spoke plainly and directly to a weary US electorate.

His rival, Hillary Clinton, was the arch establishment figure and acted as if she was entitled to the job.

Yes, she won the popular vote, but Trump won the Electoral College race and as such he will be sworn into office in a couple of weeks’ time.

Will he be the utter disaster many have forecast?

Probably not, but the world is certainly a less certain place.

For the long-spoken-about but rarely helped undocumented Irish in the US, Trump’s victory makes their existence for the next four — and possibly eight years — most uncomfortable.

Seanad relocation row

The Seanad chamber is one of the rooms affected and this year saw a major process undertaken to see where the 60 members of the Upper House could be facilitated.

After talk of the Mansion House, the old Grattan’s Parliament and even Trinity College, it was decided the Seanadóirí would be moving next door to the National Museum, to the horror of the gatekeepers of our heritage.

‘Shameless landgrab’ was how it was portrayed on the letters pages in leading newspapers, but the deal was done.

The former director of the National Museum, Pat Wallace, said staff were so upset about the impending arrival of the Seanad to the building that they have been “weeping”.

Pat Wallace said this was a second attempt by Arts Minister Heather Humphreys to “grab” at the National Museum.

Garda strike/ Public sector pay

The threat of a Garda strike and the subsequent Labour Court awards to a group of public servants who on average earn €100,000 each a year (once gold-plated pensions are included) has thrown the issue of public sector pay into chaos.

Paschal Donohoe has the unenviable task of trying to contain the madness.

Tales from unions of gardaí sleeping in cars were undermined completely by the publication of the John Horgan report which revealed the highly generous terms of employment enjoyed by the gardai.

This could get messy should nurses and others want the same rises granted to the Gardaí by the Labour Court.

Return of the Bert

“Cheeky git of the year” award has to go to former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, whose return to the political fold was much commented on.

It appears his old local organisation have opened the door for him to return to Fianna Fáil, after his 2012 resignation after the publication of the Mahon Tribunal.

The news drew a cool response from Micheál Martin and Bertie made it clear it was merely to help the lads out locally — but Martin and others are wary.

Mick Wallace Bankrupt

The year has ended with the bankrupting of Wexford TD and developer Mick Wallace.

With accumulated debts of more than €30m, Wallace will be free of it in 12 months’ time.

Crying foul about an agenda, Wallace said the decision by Cerberus (the US fund giant) was because he has eviscerated it over its role in the controversial sale of Nama’s Northern Ireland loan book.

Wallace said he is fighting to keep his last property, his home in Fairview in Dublin, having once owned more than 75.

But he is spared the loss of his Dáil seat due to a 2014 law change and he has promised to continue his attacks on Nama and Cerberus. What has he got to lose?

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