I had decided I wasn’t going to do it again this year. The endless search for eye of newt and toe of frog. The lonely hunt for the three witches and their cauldron. All for the sake of informing readers who don’t believe me about what is going to happen this year. When my predictions are so unappreciated, I reasoned, why would I bother?
But then a friend on Facebook sent me the column I wrote this time last year — a column that even I had consigned to the dustbin of history. And as I reread it, I realised how outlandish some of my predictions were for 2016.
For instance (get ready to laugh out loud, sceptical readers) I suggested that Vladimir Putin would make it clear in public that he would have no difficulty working with his good friend Donald Trump, after Trump won the Republican nomination. I did go on to predict that Trump would lose to Hilary Clinton after a last-minute scandal. Well, there was no last-minute scandal — instead there was a scandal once a week, but he won anyway.
I predicted that it would take months to form a government here at home after an election that failed to produce one. I told you that Enda Kenny would end up leading that government, and that Shane Ross would not only be Minister for Planning the next Hundred Years or something equally important, but would also be picked to lead the Irish delegation to the Rio Olympics (mind you, he didn’t stay there too long).
I did tell you this time last year that the Social Democrats would win three seats in the election, but that they wouldn’t stay together long. I was dead right on that one, but I blotted my copybook a bit by also announcing that Lucinda Creighton would be Tánaiste in the new government, before resigning on the first issue that came along. In my defence, I still believe that if she had been, she would have (if you follow me).
I even predicted that Ireland would meet Iceland in the European Championships after both countries sensationally qualified for the knock-out stages. In the end, Iceland got a bit luckier than us. They played England, and scored a famous victory to get to the quarter finals. We had to settle for a 2-1 loss against the host country France, but our team did us proud nevertheless.
Now, I’m not saying that you should have taken my predictions last year down to the bookies, although if you had chosen wisely among them you might have made a few bob (even the one about Bertie making a comeback wasn’t too wide of the mark). But the truth is I’m drawing comfort from a light-hearted piece I wrote back then, because most of the serious predictions I made during the year were totally wrong. I got Brexit wrong, I got Trump wrong. I did get it right in suggesting that we’d be in a pretty shambolic situation where our own politics is concerned, but there’s no comfort in that.
I wasn’t alone. 2016 turned out to be the most unpredictable year that most of us can remember. The outcomes weren’t just surprising, they were, in most cases, the worst possible outcomes imaginable. And they got worse as the year drew to an end. The leader of the free world is a man who can’t seem to control his worst instincts. This tweet, sent out on New Year’s Eve, seems typical of him: “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
Given what has happened, and what we’re facing, it seems to me that there is only one honest prediction to make right now. And for once, I hope I’m totally wrong. By the end of this year, the world will be a scarier place than it is today.
The reason, I think, is clear. We are moving, slowly but inexorably, away from democracy and towards a flirtation with authoritarianism. It may be that this is the inevitable and long-term consequence of failure — and especially the failure to regulate greed in the economy.
The banking collapse and the world-wide crisis that followed it gave rise to the first wave of fear. The rise of terrorism accentuated that. The failure of democratic governments and institutions around the world to realise what was happening seemed to cement a politics of division, where people have spent all their energies deciding what to campaign against rather than for.
The result has been that the short-term future of the world has been vested in two men, Trump and Putin. They may, on the surface, seem to get on together, but that’s surely a hollow hope. Trump may not yet have a clue where the best interests of America (and possibly the world) lie, but Putin shows all the signs of someone who is determined to pursue his own interests, and to push boundaries as far as he is allowed to.
Peace in the Middle East, the sovereignty of European countries, the fate of the Baltics — these are all huge issues where it is possible to see enormous instability in the face of unchecked Russian ambition.
The longer-term future poses even greater challenges. I find myself worrying more and more, for instance, about what kind of environment my children and grandchildren will inherit. It is deeply disturbing that Trump is not just a global warming sceptic, but has surrounded himself with outright deniers. The future of the entire planet rests in this man’s hands now, and there is no sign that anyone will manage to inject some basic sense into him on the single most important issue of our time.
Across Europe, we face a year of uncertainty too. I never thought, for example, that elections in France and Germany would matter to all of us as they certainly will this year. The certain emergence of the far right, possibly into power in France and (at least) into a powerful opposition position in Germany, has the potential to be a major contributor to destabilisation across Europe. The European institutions themselves, ridden by bureaucratic instincts as they are, and already deeply in need of reform as they are, offer little or no solution.
What should we be doing in the face of all this? I’ve often said that democracy is like the water that runs from our taps — we take it for granted every day, and we don’t know how to cope when it’s turned off. We’re closer to that point now than we have been for 80 years.
So our new year resolution this year has to be to fight for the democratic values that matter. We are all still citizens of a free and democratic world. We have to find ways to speak up, to band together when possible, and to assert that we will not let democracy wither away. If we all, in our own little way, stand and fight, then maybe 2017 can be a year of rebirth, rather than of fear.