In this, the last column of 2020, I throw a very jaundiced eye over the political year, a year dominated by Covid and Brexit. I also look at the Taoiseach’s remarkable claim that we didn’t bail out the banks and suggest that his remarks were not an intemperate outburst as some suggest, but a clumsy and failed attempt to call out what he sees as populism.
The version below is a longer version of the column which appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday December 21, 2020.
To paraphrase the David Frost programme of the 1960’s: That was the year that was — It’s over, let it go… except, we can’t, not just yet. Politically the year is far from over. 2020 is not quite yet finished with the two issues that have so far dominated the year: Brexit and Covid. While the two issues will also dominate 2021, they each have a bit left to be played out in this year.
On Brexit we still have the will they/won’t they saga over whether the EU and UK negotiators can finalise a deal in Brussels. Last week I said I thought they could and would. I still think they can, though it now seems possible that it may take until January to get that deal defined on paper and possibly until February to get it formally passed in Europe.
My optimism is not based on any propensity for Pollyannaism, but on the reality that Prime Minister Johnson cannot continue to fight serious political battles on both the Covid and Brexit fronts at once. To quote a former UK Europe Minister: “Johnson is exhausted. Covid incompetence is draining his authority”. Yes, the fishing issues are complex, but the Brexit deal that is sitting ready to be concluded does not cover where the UK makes its money – financial and professional services.
Having seen his government’s horrendous mishandling of Covid result in having to suddenly invent and impose a new even higher lockdown tier on almost a third of the UK population, Johnson cannot afford to have the epicentre of this new Covid variant, Kent and the south east coast of England, hit with a double whammy of Brexit chaos at cross channel ports.
It is hard not to suspect that Johnson and his utterly hapless Health Secretary Matt Hancock were relieved to learn about a Covid variation as it enabled them to spin that the soaring infection rates were wholly due to the mutation, not their failed policies.
This plays out here in the worries at concern of what happens on Brexit on January 1st as we enter a hopefully short term no man’s land of the unknown and the problems with Irish people living and working in London and the South-East looking to get of there and back to Ireland.
As I have said here many times before, while we have got a lot of things right on Covid, we have got very many wrong: on testing, contact tracing and on dealing with passengers arriving at Dublin Airport. As Dublin (and other) Airport staff have been reporting for weeks, the volumes going through our airports are not high. I know from my essential trips earlier this year that Dublin Airport is unbelievably quiet, so there is no reason why we cannot have testing done at Airports on everyone coming through over the next few days.
Other countries test everyone coming in and have done for months. Germany has been testing everyone going through its international airports since June. It is very doable, especially when you use the cheaper Rapid Antigen Tests. Though less accurate than the PCR testing, the results can be obtained in less than 60 minutes. You can therefore test and re-test to mitigate the loss in accuracy. Indeed consideration of the use of rapid tests at airports was one of the recommendations (#14) made by EU Commission last November.
We should not shut our airports to all flights from the UK or turn away Irish people looking to come home to visit family and loved ones. We can and should put strict conditions on it, including mandatory testing and real quarantining – not the box ticking one we have had since the start.
Covid and Brexit will still be there as challenges facing the government in 2021. Indeed, the continuing out-workings of Brexit – or Brexiternity as Denis MacShane has christened it – will be there to keep several future governments warm over the decade ahead.
It is hard to see how Brexit could or would destabilise the government in 2021. This is not quite the case with Covid-19. While there have been failures on nursing homes, mass testing and contact tracing, the public has broadly supported the government’s handling of the pandemic response to date.
Only a serious delay or problem with the rollout of the vaccine might impact the government. This, perhaps, is why the Taoiseach is so keen to manage expectations on when the bulk of citizens getting the vaccine, suggesting that it may be well into the summer, even August, before we get to the recommended 70% level of vaccination.
This managing of expectations is both a political necessity and a double-edged sword. While the Taoiseach will see it as prudent to under promise now in the hope of overdelivering in the future, it also risks accelerating the evident public fatigue with restrictions.
Though is not popular or advisable for politicians to even say or acknowledge it, the fact is that the public can be very hypocritical. Many of the same voters who tell pollsters that they’d back a move to Level 4 or Level 5 after Christmas are not averse to cutting corners when it comes to visiting friends or having folks over for a bit of a get together.
This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who looks at the statistics.
The biggest problems facing this government are internal and the removal or easing or external pressures may allow these to come more to the surface.
While it still commands 50% plus support in the polls, the government is only just holding itself together. This week we were reminded that, despite Fianna Fáil’s considerable internal problems, the fault-line in the government runs right through the Green Party.
The fact that the government had a political difficulty over CETA, the trade agreement with Canada is an indication of just how problematic the Green’s continuance in government remains.
Actually it is a double reminder. First this is about an EU trade deal with Canada… I mean, Canada, a trade deal that has been up and running since September 2017. Secondly, despite the Green leader having an entourage to rival a 18th century Bourbon monarch, albeit it of a small Duchy, it seemed that none of them could see that having the Ceta vote last week might run into a problem.
So far this year we have has a number of Green TDs, including office holders, abstaining on government votes. As Ian Fleming says in the opening page of Goldfinger: once is Happenstance, Twice is Coincidence and Three times is Enemy Action. 2021 may be the year when individual Green TDs or ministerial office holders decide they can take it no more and quit government.
Up to now the big worry among Fianna Fáil back benchers has been that Varadkar will cut and run the moment he thinks it safe to hold an election, an election framed as a competition between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.
It is a worry actively encouraged by Micheál Martin’s dwindling band of loyal supporters in the parliamentary party. An attempt to oust Martin, they argue to their disgruntled colleagues, would send Fianna Fáil into a prolonged leadership battle which, in turn, would encourage Varadkar to press the election button as soon as he safely could.
It was a weak argument at best. Not just because it overestimates Varadkar’s leverage, but because it fails to recognise that the Green party’s growing incoherence is an even greater immediate threat to the government’s stability and continuity than Varadkar’s ambition.
These running battles on policy within the Green party have the capacity to spell the end of their continued participation in government as the administrative apparatus set up by Eamon Ryan to head off these battles is so clearly not working.
So, while Martin’s minions try to scare Fianna Fáil backbenchers with imaginary stories of how a heave could precipitate an election, FF TDs are increasingly focused about the real dangers of Fianna Fáil facing an election triggered by the Greens in 2021, or early 2022, and stuck with Martin as leader.
These fears were heightened by Martin’s stunning we didn’t bail out the banks claim. It is impossible to overstate just much damage Martin inflicted on his own leadership with this one outburst.
What made it worse was that it seemed that his comments were less off the cuff and seemed more to reflect something he had been thinking about recently. The Taoiseach was spoiling for a fight. He welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight and in doing so he scored a major own goal.
His framing of his response to Deputy Boyd-Barrett echoes remarks he had made the day before to when tackling Deputy Mick Barry on Debenhams. Addressing Deputy Barry in the Dáil on Tuesday, the Taoiseach said:
The Deputy is an extraordinary propagandist and a populist. He has led people up the hill without levelling with them about the facts and what they could expect
The following day he opened his response to Boyd Barret saying:
Deputy Boyd Barrett is acting the populist…. I am sickened by the way Deputy Boyd Barrett leads people up the hill all the time, pretending there are easy simplistic solutions when he knows in his heart-
Here was a man who nobly saw it as his political and civic duty to tackle and expose the populist hypocrisy of the left, but then proved how singularly ill-equipped and ill-suited he is to its effective execution.