It’s been a strange year for Ireland in general. We’ve had to deal with the ongoing uncertainty of how to handle the pandemic which seems to be with us for a long time to come, regardless of vaccines or anti-viral drugs. 2021 in Ireland has of course been dominated by it but it’s not just the virus that’s been on the minds of Irish people.

Almost six years on, the fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union still hangs over us as a nation and although we still seem to have the European Union in our comer, the implications of what is now clearly an ongoing row between Brussels and London is, as per usual, causing us to rethink our relationship with those across the water. This is not helped by the constant warmongering by the right-wing media in the UK, fuelled by the likes of Brexit Minister David Frost who seems to fail to understand the benefits of a good deal. The end result of five years of negotiations was the Northern Ireland Protocol; a tangled set of agreements and concessions which effectively meant that Northern Ireland was staying in the EU when it comes to following EU rules on product standards. This was designed to cut down or stop any checks along the border as per the open border agreement between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement. These checks were agreed to happen when goods are entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales.

And it has been a pretty decent deal for business in Northern Ireland with no real downside for the economy. In fact according to a Financial Times report in November, the Northern Ireland economy performed better than any other region in the UK and even surpassed the country’s overall economic recovery, which was a fallen figure of 2.1 per cent over the same period Nevertheless, despite the positive outcome of the protocol, leading figures in the Unionist community are calling for its abolition and the British government is pushing Brussels as well for rethink of its arrangement. They want a revised agreement that allows goods to circulate freely in Northern Ireland if they conform to either EU or UK regulations. At the moment they have to meet EU standards. Westminster also wants to remove the role the European Commission and the European Court of Justice have in overseeing how the protocol works.

For the moment, the Irish government is putting pressure on Brussels to stand firm on the original deal and that view has certainly meant a cooling in relations between Ireland the UK. And while it is now obvious that neither side wants to budge on its demands, what is certain is that the final outcome will have drastic effect on the island of Ireland both from an economic and social point of view. It has not been missed that Sinn Féin, once a rank outsider in Irish politics have grown in its support and, as recent polls suggest, it is clear that they will be a major player in the next general election with the real possibility that they will be the majority partner in any future coalition. What that means for the island of Ireland is still unclear but what is certain is that they will not tone down their call for a serious conversation on Irish unity; something that the hardline Unionist know to be a genuine realistic proposal. Whatever your feelings on the question of Irish unity – is it affordable, what about integration, should Britain pay for it somehow, the conversation is now at a point where it is a real issue that needs more attention.

When it comes to unity, despite the fact that many political commentators predicted the implosion of the current coalition government, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have managed to hold it together. But given the fact that historically, both parties evolved from one entity in the 1920’s, are we really so surprised? Apart from the question of Irish unity, there is very little between them when it comes to policy and mandates so it seems logical that they would get on.  On the opposition from, the Labour Party, nowhere near the influence they used to be having openly raised the issue of going into a future government with Sinn Féin – something that all other parties have so far refused to do. And if as I mentioned, Sinn Féin do have a lager influence over the next government, it would be preferable for them to have one or two junior partners such as the Labour Party rather than one of the big two.

If we were to issue a report card for the Irish government for 2021, it would be highlighted as need to do better. Overall, their handling of the pandemic has been OK, but it’s been more reaction rather than pro-action as they continue to look at both London and Brussels for guidance when it comes to measures to tackle the pandemic. With ever apparent strains, they have lingered on going from soft to hard when it comes to restrictions and possibly giving too much control to the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). Fronted by possibly the most public figure in Ireland over the last two years in Dr Tony Holohan, NPHET has dictated almost every aspect of daily lives of Irish citizens, dictating of school closures, travel restrictions and social gatherings. The end result is that the country has been successful with regards to prevention but the ongoing influence of NPHET is beginning to have negative consequences not only in but in government circles but also on the street with people asking just who is in charge. Maybe this is an Irish mindset – happy to have others sort out issues if it makes life easier but what is clear is that the Irish government needs to make sure that it is in charge from a public point of view, otherwise the repercussions will be felt at the voting booth in years to come.

But despite grumblings on some sides about the way Ireland is dealing with the pandemic, vaccine uptake is high with the percentages in the 90s and the biggest complaints around this are issues with rolling out the booster jabs which have seen confusion about who is exactly eligible to get it and if there is enough vaccine available. Recent images of people being turned away from walk in vaccine centers are not good but it does show that, unlike the rest of Europe, Ireland is thankfully not going down the road of right wing rhetoric around getting the jab. There certainly have been demonstrations here but they are small and generally consisting of the same crowd that is against 5G telecommunications and refugees.

From a social point of view, Ireland has managed to get back its most prized possessions in the form of sport and entertainment, although recently, nightclubs and bars are still under restrictions. Sporting venues are almost back to normal with large crowds for football, GAA and rugby, all good news for clubs and associations struggling financially after two years of empty stadiums.  As a nation, we are the epitome of social animals, craving interaction over isolation and the last two years have been difficult on the social structure of Ireland. We long for busy pubs, restaurants and the sound of live music as we walk down the streets of towns and cities across the country. Yet at the same time, we are not tied to the land, often jumping in to the air for some weekend away in Europe or a holiday along the Mediterranean. 2021 has seen some return to travel but the idea of a spontaneous trip abroad is still a thing of the past.

But despite all the hardships of 2021, and it has been brutal for everyone, everywhere, our sprit has remained high. As a nation, we laugh, don’t do too many crazy things and still listen to experts. We still hold authority to count but have no desire to overthrow it. We love a good argument but we don’t hate too much. We enjoy new ideas and embrace new means of knowing just how things work. We are resilient and strangely enough will probably be a better place in 2022 so here’s to a new year and as we say in Ireland, feck off 2021.

Featured image by Tara Winstead on Pexels.

Ken Sweeney
Committed to idea of supporting aspiring writers and journalists. Serial podcaster.

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