2011: An extraordinary year in Irish politics

Here in Ireland, most people are quite justifiably delighted to bid farewell to 2011. It may have been the worst in a sequence of difficult years for this country and its people. We continued to come to grips with the depth of our financial problems, but at last succumbed to stark reality and now must satisfy the demands of external stakeholders, namely the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

For all of us who love the sport of politics, however, 2011 was action packed and memorable. A general election, a presidential election, votes on referendum questions and a wide array of other happenings were, if nothing else, a welcome distraction from the steady diet of economic doom and gloom that otherwise dominated the broadcast airwaves, the websites and the newspaper headlines. Following are my own top ten memories, and some reflections thereupon, from what was an extraordinary year in Irish politics.

10. Gerry Adams TD

It came as a surprise to most onlookers on both sides of the border when the former Sinn Féin Westminster MP and Stormont MLA for West Belfast decided to walk away from Northern politics and lead his party’s charge in February’s general election in the Republic. The move was viewed disdainfully and derisively by the substantial segment of residents of the 26 counties who have no use for Sinn Féin’s politics, for the republican movement in general and for Gerry Adams personally. The commentariat was skeptical about Adams as a “southern politician,” given his woeful performance in a debate of small party leaders that took place in the run-up to the 2007 general election.

Notwithstanding the suspicion about his pedigree and motives, the Sinn Féin president’s decision to run in the five seat Louth constituency proved a wise one. He easily topped the ticket and there is no question but that his candidacy helped Sinn Féin take an unprecedented 14 seats in Dáil Éireann. Since being elected, Adams has been a thorn in the coalition government’s side, with his most virulent criticism reserved for the Labour party. Sinn Féin will continue to fight it out with Labour for the hearts and minds of left of center Irish voters in 2012.

9. Labour Party TDs Expelled from Parliamentary Party

First, Willie Penrose lost the party whip for defying the government’s decision to shutter the army barracks in his hometown of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath. Then, north Dublin TD Tommy Broughan voted against his party leadership on two separate procedural votes relating to the bailout of Irish financial institutions. And most recently, Patrick Nulty declined to vote for this year’s budget on the grounds that it failed to adequately protect the most vulnerable in society just weeks after winning a special election for the seat that had been held by the late Brian Lenihan Jr.

Labour’s leadership responded by expelling each TD from the parliamentary party. In Penrose’s case, the party stated that it couldn’t allow the “parish pump” to dictate government policy; Broughan, always on the party’s left flank and used to being in the wilderness, is regarded as sui generis; and Nulty has been deemed something of a traitor for so cavalierly bucking the party leadership so soon after relying on the party machinery for an election triumph. While these are all fair points, it is still somewhat vexing that an individual politician, whether he is acting in the best interests of his constituents or following his conscience, is deemed unfit to belong to a political party if his orthodoxy doesn’t extend to every single vote he casts in office.

Others may lose the party whip in 2012, and the larger government party, Fine Gael, could see some of its own members defect in the wake of ever more challenging decisions to be taken in the next twelve months. The leadership of both parties is unlikely to make any concessions because of the huge majority they enjoy in the Dáil.

8. The Rise of the Independent TD

An extraordinary number of candidates sought election to Dáil Éireann in February’s general election. 566 candidates, fully 100 more than in the 2007 general election, campaigned for seats in the parliament, including an unprecedented 233 independents. Independent, in spite of their relative lack of resources as compared to their major party opponents, fared extremely well in the election. 17 independents, from across the political spectrum, won election.

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