10 top stories of 2015

SEAMUS DUKE reviews the year’s major news stories and events

A nation says YES

If anyone wants to take a bellwether gauge as to where Ireland is as a nation in 2015 socially, then the same-sex marriage campaign was surely a very accurate marker.

  In May, Ireland became the first country in the world in which its people voted to legalise gay marriage. The days when the Catholic Church ruled Irish society with an iron fist were well and truly gone and this was the final nail in that coffin. More young people than ever before voted and the result was emphatic (62% to 38%). The campaign was dominated by the ‘Yes’ side.

  The reason for that was partly that it was seen to be politically incorrect to campaign in favour of a ‘No’ vote – and there were accusations that there was bias in favour of the ‘Yes’ side in the media. The Roscommon-South Leitrim constituency was the only one in the country which recorded a ‘No’ vote, which generated a lot of publicity too.

  The result of the vote made world news and that weekend many Rossies were in London for the Roscommon v London Connacht Championship game and it was amazing to see the massive coverage that the story got in the UK.

 The IFA pay scandal

I have been in this job a long time and I would say that over those years the IFA have been the most impressive and successful lobby group in this country. However the revelations of massive pay and expenses paid to the top brass in the organisation was shocking, even to the most seasoned observers.

  Ordinary members of the organisation, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, ended the year disillusioned and very angry – and with good reason too. Having heard about the greed and excessive pay and bonus culture in many organisations over the past few years – including the banks and many charitable and semi-state organisations – people probably should not have been surprised that the top people in the IFA had their noses well down in the trough.

  The depressing thing is that so many Irish people have been so very greedy over the years with not a care in the world for the ordinary people who are paying their wages. Can the IFA survive after this scandal? I’d say that it’s probably in the balance. Farmers need a strong lobby group. Whether that will be the IFA going forward, remains to be seen.

Terror threat

Terrorism has been a fact of life for many, many years, but in 2015 it has been taken to a whole new level. We now have organisations like IS who have plenty of young, determined people ready and willing to slaughter innocent people in a variety of countries – and they are prepared to die during that task.

  The absolutely chilling and frightening massacres in Paris this year have rightly received massive media coverage, but a lot of people might forget that there are massacres going on every single day in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries throughout the greater Middle Eastern Region.

  So are the Western powers right to bomb the IS strongholds? They are damned if they do and they are damned if they don’t, and either way there is no winner. Terrorism is set to remain a fact of life and places like London, Paris and other major Western cities will always be a major targets – and there is not much we here in Ireland can do about it. Is it likely there will be an attack here in Ireland? It’s unlikely, but I suppose you cannot rule it out.

The economy and us

No one disputes that the Irish economy has made a fairly spectacular recovery over the past 12 months, but try telling any shopkeeper, small business owner or publican in County Roscommon that the economy grew 7% in the first nine months of this year.

  The term ‘two-tier recovery’ is probably a cliché, but it certainly applies to rural Ireland. Yes, there are more jobs in the country, but they are in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

  There are very few young people left in rural areas – particularly during the week, and during the college year as well – and there has been little sign of a local recovery thus far. Will rural Ireland ever be able to share in the national recovery? Probably not.

Refugee crisis

2015 has seen an explosion of refugees as literally millions of people have fled war and starvation in places like Africa and the Middle East, but the biggest numbers came from Syria. Millions of people have felt unable to remain in the country as IS and other groups have battled it out in a bloody and vicious civil war.

  The vast majority of these people headed for Europe – and caused a major humanitarian problem for the EU. Germany was most generous, taking in the region of 800,000 people into their country.

  Other countries have not been as accommodating and Ireland eventually agreed to take in a couple of thousand people. But this problem is set to continue and every week ahundreds of people drown in the Mediterranean while trying to get to Europe’s shores. EU governments will have to grapple with this massive problem for a number of years to come.

 Return of the floods

In 2009 we witnessed the worst flooding in living memory in this country and there were major problems then, both locally and nationally.   

  In December 2015 Storm Desmond wreaked havoc and once again flooding became front page news. A massive voluntary effort eventually saved businesses and homes in places like Athleague from suffering serious damage and it looks like a similar massive effort will succeed in Athlone too. However, other homes and businesses were not so lucky and it looks like this is going to become a more frequent problem in the years to come.

  The Government will have to put serious resources into flood relief in the near future and the cleaning of local rivers and drains will have to become a priority. I know that it is probably closing the door after the horse has bolted, but local authority planners who allowed housing estates and commercial premises to be built on known flood plains over the years stand indicted.

  Fields that were flooded many, many years ago before climate change was ever heard of were built on in the past twenty years ­– and those disastrous decisions are now coming back to haunt us.

An infamous trial

The Graham Dwyer trial was one of the most high profile trials in years in this country. A brave film director will, some day, take on this story, because this case had everything.

  A well to do professional and family man who had a penchant for violent and taboo sexual behaviour and who murdered to satisfy his bizarre and twisted desires. There was some brilliant police work and the way that Dwyer was eventually caught is a story in itself.

  The evidence in the trial was frequently disturbing and at times hard to listen to. Dwyer was convinced right to the very end that he would be found not guilty. The Gardai did a wonderful job and they secured their conviction.

 The story that kept running

The debacle that is Irish Water continued at or near the top of the news diary in 2015. As we prepare for a new year the facts are that about 50% of the Irish people who have received a bill for water have not paid up. 

  Not alone that, many people who have refused to pay have received the €100 grant issued by the Department of Social Protection. Even worse, the half a million water meters that are in the ground are redundant and we have a situation where those who do not pay their bill face no sanction whatsoever.

  The Irish Water story went off the front pages in the final couple of months of the year, but make no mistake it will be back centre stage sooner rather than later.

 The story that wouldn’t go away

Locally here in Roscommon probably the biggest story of 2015 related to the mental health services in the county which were under pressure for most of 2015.

  We had the threat to the Rosalie Unit in Castlerea, which eventually passed after a massive local campaign. We have had several very worrying stories of a lack of services in mental health areas in County Roscommon and later in the year a High Court Judge said that the services in the county were at ‘crisis point’. 

  In the general health service, ambulance waiting times (the planned ambulance base in Loughglynn is still not up and running), overcrowded A&E units, and a lengthening of hospital waiting lists were a feature thoughout the year as Minister Varadkar and the HSE struggled on many fronts with an under-pressure health service.

UK General Election drama

For those of is who love to watch elections, this was one of the most fascinating in many years. Opinions polls were shown to be very far off the mark as the Conservatives swept back into power despite all the polls saying that it was unlikely (and that an overall majority was effectively an impossibility). The Scottish Nationalists arrived on the scene in no uncertain terms and the Labour Party were badly hit.

  There are huge implications for Ireland as a result of that win for the Tories. David Cameron had, as one of his main policies during his campaign, pledged to the British people to put their membership of the EU to a referendum. That is sure to happen now in 2016 – and if the UK pull out it will have massive implications for Ireland. It looks at this stage as if the UK will almost certainly vote to exit the EU, but I suppose there is a bit of talking and persuading to go on this one yet.