Next Taoiseach’s agenda - Daunting challenges lie ahead

Later this week the saga to identify Enda Kenny’s successor will end. Irrespective of who is chosen, the challenges facing the next Taoiseach — if they are the same person — are spectacular, varied, polarising and unprecedented.

Whoever is selected will struggle to set an agenda because so many fundamental issues are in train. Ambition may be crushed by the day-to-day; pragmatism may sideline promise.

The first among those challenges is Brexit. It is almost a year since our neighbours voted to leave the European Union but even at this point, that decision is one of the very few certainties in the process.

Uncertainty prevails and loyalties — European and Anglo/Irish — will be tested in a way they have not been in living memory.

Brexit has the capacity to wreak havoc with our economy, our ambitions and our social obligations. To pretend otherwise is delusional.

That dynamic is exacerbated by the possibility that President Trump may make the position of American companies in Ireland untenable.

The scale of those challenges is, unfortunately, not matched by our ability to influence events. How they are resolved will define the legacy of Mr Kenny’s successor.

Our capacity to influence climate change is limited too but a country that emits more greenhouse gases than the 400m poorest people on earth, one that presents itself as civilised, cannot continue with business as usual.

One of the latest climate reports suggests that some cities may be as much as 8C warmer by 2100. The implications of this are almost incomprehensible.

They suggest that the next Taoiseach will have to confront sectors behind our unsustainable emission levels in a way none of his predecessors even contemplated.

The scale of this challenge cannot be underestimated though the head-in-the-sand opposition to it can be.

Brexit may dominate the next Taoiseach’s term in office but the health of our public finances — the fiscal space — will determine what can be achieved. Public sector pay talks will be influential, as will the debate about how public resources are allocated.

That debate — to increase pay or improve services — will have a greater impact on our society than might be immediately apparent.

Mr Kenny and all of his predecessors ensured that the polarising issues around the Eighth Amendment languished in their legacy file.

His successor will not have that luxury. This issue has the potential to suck all of the oxygen out of nearly all political activity and renew bitter division. This will be an unenviable challenge for an untried leader.

These are hugely important, society-defining issues but they pale into insignificance compared to greater cultural challenges. Our next Taoiseach will have to try to make our parliament relevant.

That person will have to work to restore the squandered credibility of so many State agencies — everything from our swamped, two-tier health service; our discredited gardaí, our hopelessly inadequate regulatory services; our unwise dependence on imported energy and huge demographic changes demand attention. Brexit, Trump and immigration raise pressing security questions too.

All in all, more than enough to be going on with.


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