Covid-19 has put day-to-day politics in the shade over the past 12 months, just as it did in 2020. Back in January the Government came in for widespread criticism for relaxing the Covid restrictions last Christmas to allow people to come together to enjoy the holiday. The decision coincided with the first of the aggressive new variants which spread like wildfire through these islands. The result was a massive surge in cases with hospitals and intensive care units almost overwhelmed.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was clearly shaken by the miscalculation and pursued a cautious policy of maintaining a range of restrictions in place throughout the year as the scale of the virus outbreaks ebbed and flowed. The good news at the start of the year was that a number of vaccines against Covid had been developed but there was deep frustration at the slow pace of the rollout, particularly compared to the rapid deployment of the vaccine in the UK.
The slow start arose principally because of the shortage of supply due to the way in which the European Commission had negotiated contracts with the big pharmaceutical companies.
Once the teething problems had been sorted out the vaccination campaign got into full swing by Easter and the bulk of the population had received two jabs by the summer. This had a massive impact in cutting the transmissibility of Covid and reducing the pressure on the health service.
Brexit While a semblance of normality had returned by July, the arrival of the Delta variant, and more recently Omicron, meant that restrictions had to be ramped up again in tandem with the booster campaign. The latest round of restrictions, including the closing of pubs and restaurants at 8
pm, was announced by the Taoiseach just over a week before Christmas. It was a severe blow to the hospitality sector but in the light of what happened a year ago there was a widespread acceptance that the Government did the right thing.
The first big political issue to emerge in the year was directly linked to Covid. The European Commission was under pressure for the slowness of the vaccine rollout which it attributed to the failure of the UK-based AstraZeneca to honour its contracts. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen threatened to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol in an effort to put pressure on the UK over vaccine supply.
The threat to invoke the protocol met with furious objections from the Irish and British governments and it was dropped in a matter of hours. However, it did serious damage to the EU’s efforts to persuade the British to honour the terms of the protocol which formed a crucial element of the Brexit settlement. Emboldened by the EU faux pas the belligerent British negotiator David Frost adopted a hard line in attempting to undermine the protocol.
By November he was threatening to suspend its operations by invoking article 16, even though EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic made significant concessions to limit its impact on everyday life in Northern Ireland. The British ultimately held off after EU threats of a trade war and the growing political chaos in London. The shock resignation of Frost just before Christmas means the issue will be back on the agenda in the New Year, with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, having to make a big call on whether to seek compromise or confrontation with the EU.
Relative stability On the domestic front, the housing crisis and persistent problems stemming from long-term failings in the health
system continued to dominate. For the Government, however, it was a more stable year, with none of the drama of forced resignations and instability that marked the Coalition’s first few months in office last year. Relations between the Government parties have been relatively smooth and internal dissension has been kept under control. The steady rise in support for Sinn Féin in opinion polls has helped to glue the Coalition parties together as none of them wants an early general election.
Another reason for the relative stability has been the astonishing performance of the economy. At the beginning of the year the expectation was that the deficit for the year would be a crippling €20 billion as a result of the spending programmes undertaken to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. In the event it has been nothing like that due to a strong rebound by business and a massive increase in corporation tax and income tax.
One notable political achievement has been the Climate Action Act, which has set specific targets for a whole range of activities in order to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions to which the country is committed. The legislation is an important triumph for the Green Party and justifies its participation in government.
As the year draws to a close it looks as if the two big issues of 2021, Covid and the protocol, will continue to dominate political life in the months ahead with climate action remaining an issue for decades to come.