By Peter Vandermeersch
Dear Belgian and Dutch friends,
As some of you probably remember, I started my job as publisher here in Ireland at the beginning of August 2019, exactly one year ago this week. The past year has been an exciting one in Irish politics, something which has not always been noticed on continental Europe. Belgian and Dutch media do not (understandably) pay much attention to what is happening over here. Now that the Irish Parliament (the Dáil) is in recess for six weeks, it’s a good moment to take stock of a year in Irish politics.
The most important news (which indeed has been covered abroad): the left-wing Republican party, Sinn Féin, which is still closely linked to the IRA, became the biggest party in the parliamentary elections. This delivered a major blow to the two centre-right parties who have been governing this country for the last hundred years, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Voters understandably expressed their anger over the fact that, in one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, there’s a shortage of housing, rents and homelessness are rocketing and medical care is sub-standard. Two week before the elections, I asked a colleague if SF could ever become the biggest party on this island. ‘Never in my lifetime’, was the answer. The person in question is, fortunately, still in good health.
Another historic event: after very long negotiations (according to Irish standards, my Belgian friends) Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil formed, together with the smaller Green Party, a government. Never in the history of the Republic have these two ‘civil war parties’ (who fought each other in the Civil War, 1922-1923) worked together in government. Only nine months ago, when I asked a seasoned colleague if that would ever happen, he answered ’never in my lifetime’. The person in question is, fortunately, still in good health.
In order to make this possible, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil decided to split the job of Prime Minister. For the first 2,5 years Micheál Martin will be Taoiseach (Irish PM), then Leo Varadkar will take over. It reminds me of the way in which the job of the mayor is split up in small Belgian communes. Or how farmers strike a deal over the sale of a piece of land. Can you imagine such a deal in The Netherlands? Impossible. In Ireland, nothing is impossible. But, dear Belgian friends, there is a government here!
The new government had a very rocky start. Less than a month after Barry Cowen was appointed as Minister of Agriculture, a very important post here, he was sacked after it emerged he had been convicted for drink driving in 2016 after an All-Ireland gaelic football final. By the way, it turned out that the 49-year old politician was also, at the time, on a provisional driver’s license. There were rumours, too, that he had tried to evade a police checkpoint. The episode cost him his new job. From hero to zero in twelve days.
Another hero in Irish politics last year: TD (member of parliament) Maria Bailey. She fell off a swing (yes, a swing) on the premises of a Dublin hotel during a night out with friends. After falling she sued the hotel… because the swing was ‘unsupervised’. In November last year, Fine Gael decided to remove her from the party’s ticket. Ms Baily said she was ‘disappointed’ at the decision. The party was diappointed in her.
Also disappointed: the Irish taxpayer who had to pick up a bill of almost 2 million Euros at the end of last year after the Parliament ordered a new printer,… which turned out to be too big to fit into the actual building it was destined for. The clerk of the Dáil said ‘sorry’. Taxpayers are sorry too.
Finally, the most insightful quote of the year from an Irish politician undoubtedly came from Danny Healy-Rae, outlining how he represents the people, not the planet: “Vote for the people, stay with the people, and to hell with the planet and the fellas that says we must save the planet”. No he’s not from the Green Party. He’s a Healy-Rae from County Kerry. But then again, Kerry always has been a very special place in this very special Ireland.