As we start a new year, Richard Clune looks back the biggest Irish news stories of 2011
We have learned a new vocabulary in Ireland over the past year. The so-called troika, comprising of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, have control of our pay strings. We have become aware that paying bondholders maybe isn’t such a wonderful idea. The yield given on ten-year bonds shouldn’t exceed seven per cent for a country or they face big trouble. The financial contagion that began with Greece, a peripheral nation, has spread to the Eurozone’s third largest economy, Italy, and threatens France. Merkozy, comprising of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are now the two leaders in Europe and any decisions made at European summits in the future will have already been made by them beforehand. €6 billion was taken out of the Irish economy in the 2011 Budget, while €3.8b billion was taken out of the economy in the most recent Budget announced at the start of December. This is following a policy of austerity measures that the troika has laid out for us. If the emigration figures of a thousand people leaving every week and rising unemployment are any benchmark to go by, it is clear that this policy isn’t working.
February 25th 2011 will go down in history as the day that one of the greatest and most dominating political parties in Western Europe saw their support base decimated. Fianna Fáil only regained a quarter of their seats, ceding power to Fine Gael and Labour and joining the ranks of opposition for the first time in fourteen years. Few expected the outrage of the public to be so clear, with many expecting the traditional voters to save Fianna Fáil from such an embarrassment. Yet many jumped ship to Fine Gael, allowing them to form a government and become the largest party of the state. It was the day that the voters rejected the failed policies of Fianna Fáil and poured scorn on the party that had brought the country to its knees economically. The fact that the party won only one seat in the county of Dublin shows how low their support is amongst the electorate. The demise of Fianna Fáil wasn’t the only story of the election as Fine Gael almost won enough seats to govern by themselves, Labour and Sinn Fein had their greatest election results, winning thirty-six seats and fourteen seats respectfully and there were nineteen Independents elected. The Green Party did not win one seat, thanks to their time in government with Fianna Fáil. The future is uncertain for Irish politics, with the government having a majority big enough to ensure they will see out their five years in office.
The second election campaign of the year was the Presidential election in October. It caught the attention of the public and the media in the early summer, and David Norris helped to draw attention to the campaign by trying to secure a nomination through the Oireachtas and bowing out of the race before re-entering it a couple of months later. Fianna Fáil didn’t run a candidate, allowing Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness to attempt securing the republican vote. Mary Davis, organiser of the 2003 Special Olympics, businessman Seán Gallagher, Labour’s Michael D. Higgins, Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell and Rosemary Scallon, better known as Dana, made up the septet in the Race for the Áras. By the time the election campaign started in earnest many voters had grown weary of the race and its blanket coverage. The seven participated in radio and television debates while the print media tried to dig up as much dirt on each of the candidates as possible. One by one, public support for Mary Davis, Gay Mitchell, Dana, Martin McGuinness and David Norris fell as various stories emerged about them. This left Seán Gallagher and Michael D. Higgins, with much made about the Fianna Fáil background of Gallagher. Gallagher held a commanding lead in the polls right up until the weekend before the election when the words “envelope” and “recollection” cemented his reputation and cost him much of his support. Michael D. Higgins, with an absence of negative press, easily secured the support of the nation to become President.
Barack Obama’s visit
Barack Obama, the world’s most powerful man and President of the United States, came to Ireland on Monday, May 23rd to discover his roots in Moneygall, Co. Offaly and his lost apostrophe. The Irish people love a celebrity with an Irish heritage and the country went wild when Obama, on St. Patrick’s Day, announced that he would be making his first visit to Ireland as President. It was a one-day stopover which incorporated going to Moneygall for a pint of Guinness and meeting the throngs of people that lined the street of the town. This was after meeting President McAleese in Áras an Uachtarán and being presented with a hurley. In the afternoon he joined an Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, onstage in College Green to give a speech and inspire a nation. The visit allowed the Irish people to forget about austerity measures and the worries of life and rejoice in being Irish. A few words as Gaeilge, ably translated for those who may not have known, gave the nation more to cheer about. The visit may have been made for Obama’s own political gain in part, as it reaffirmed his Irish roots for the American electorate but it motivated the Irish and let us hear our Taoiseach speak in a way that we had never heard before.
The Queen’s Visit
The State visit of Queen Elizabeth II earlier in May of 2011 arguably had a greater effect on the country than that of the President Obama. The first State visit in over a century by a British monarch was a resounding success, and the Queen stayed in Ireland for four days. Her stay in Ireland included many moving moments; ranging from stepping onto Croke Park and laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to her speech at Dublin Castle and doing a meet and greet with the people of Cork. The visit was a symbol of the new relationship between Ireland and England, representing the healing that has taken place between both nations. While there was some opposition to the Queen’s presence, the vast majority of people were supportive of her visit and anybody who was in two minds was surely swayed by the dignity with which she conducted herself. Her bow at the Garden of Remembrance, when she paid her respects to those that fought for Irish freedom is an image that will live in the memory of everybody who saw it for years to come. State relations between the two nations are currently at a high and diplomacy dictates that the Irish President may make a return visit in the future. The Olympics take place in London this summer and the Queen is due to visit Australia later in the year, which means that it will be 2013 before Michael D. Higgins can make a visit to Buckingham Palace.