Belfast Telegraph

2016 in review: Anyone who thinks 2017 will be better than 2016 is in for a shock

There's always the unexpected around the corner, writes Malachi O'Doherty

The last year got a bad name, which it didn't quite deserve. There were numerous postings on social media that virtually blamed the year itself for the apparent rash of celebrity deaths. People said they wanted to put that awful year behind them, imagining that once the New Year was in, the celebrities would stop dying.

My first prediction for 2017 is that this will not happen. More famous people will die. Our obituarists will be as busy as ever and the anomaly that 2016 appears to have been will turn out to have been the normal pattern of our days.

Last year also got a bad name for the rise of populism, which means for the political decisions which huge numbers disagree with. Populist appears to mean "popular, but ill-conceived". The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States have been written about as enormous, unforeseen aberrations, symptomatic of huge shifts in the public mood.

Yet each of them could be credited to the political miscalculations of parties which should have known better, or at least might have done things differently.

David Cameron did not want a referendum on British membership of the EU. The groundswell was not as great before the vote as after it. He wanted the country to stay in the EU. He called the referendum with confidence that the Remain vote would prevail. And he did so to outflank a threat from Ukip.

He took the more reckless course and paid for it with his political career. His legacy is the very damage he hoped most to avert.

And, certainly, there is a wave of popular anxiety on both sides of the argument still. Many who want Brexit fear it won't happen and are angry that they have to go on justifying their decision. And many who don't want Brexit are anxious to constrain it.

But that unrest in the country was not inevitable. It did not arise out of the character of the year, or any particular seismic shift preceding the referendum. It was a consequence of political miscalculation.

Don't blame the calendar, or destiny, or anything like that; blame Cameron.

The election of Donald Trump was even less of a populist revolution, in that, unlike with Brexit, the majority of votes went against him.

What changed was not the popular mood, but the strategic competency of the main political parties. The Republican Party didn't want Trump, but couldn't just dump him.

The Democrats were over-confident and smug and assumed that Hillary Clinton would be accepted as a natural inheritor of the job. In fact, they were right. She got three million more votes than Trump did, but the electoral college system determined that they were the wrong votes, in the wrong places.

So, if we could get over the feeling that 2016 was uniquely toxic, then we might be able to face into 2017 with a more realistic sense that dates don't, of themselves, turn against us. That should stop us expecting too much of the next year.

Yet, whoever you blame, the damage is done and 2017 will be the outworking of it.

Brexit negotiations will start and it is hard to see how the current ferment will be eased by the protracted uncertainty.

And Trump is, I truly believe, an inadequate and immature human being, entirely unfit to be president of one of his own golf clubs, let alone of the most powerful country on earth. He will make a hash of things and he will probably enjoy doing that. The best one can hope for is that he will be impeached when his own party recovers its senses.

Even then, he will go with the total confidence that he has been wronged.

The greater evil would be that he would continue in office and deepen the divisions between those who continue to invest their hopes in him and those who see plainly that he is a pest.

Predicting the events of the next year requires one to have a guess at where Trump is most likely to make a mess of things, whether in international relations or the economy, whether he will further alienate China or start a war.

Obama is leaving tailored problems on his plate, particularly in relation to Russia and Israel. And he has another couple of weeks to go, so may bind Trump still further.

One fearsome prospect of a Trump presidency is that Russia might be emboldened to grab territory in the confidence that the West will not intervene.

Another is that his brashness will be infectious and contaminate political discussion everywhere.

He might exacerbate, or mismanage, growing problems in the Middle East. If Trump scraps the nuclear deal with Iran, then Iran might revive its nuclear programme and Israel might feel tempted to attack Iran.

But Israel now has Russian airbases on its doorstep and that added muscle might prompt Syria to try to recover the Golan Heights.

Isis/Daesh will be scattered from its bases in Syria and Iraq and then might prove a greater rather than a lesser threat to European capitals.

One horrific possible calamity in Iraq might be the collapse of the Mosul dam. Feared imminent, according to an article in the New Yorker, this could drown more than a million people.

Locally, we are heading into one of our routine threats to the continuation of devolution. We have these every year and they always get sorted out, don't they? So, nothing to worry about there.

Arlene Foster will either step aside for the duration of an independent investigation, or Sinn Fein will exact a high price for saving her, perhaps even for stitching the agreement back together after walking out.

The DUP might be reconsidering now whether she is worth saving at the price of an Irish Language Act, tricolours on public buildings and all the attendant humiliation of doing things they said they never would. Fears for the health of Martin McGuinness suggest that he may not be the Deputy First Minister for much longer and there is speculation that Gerry Adams will step down as party president, too. Yet both men are desk-clingers.

A collapse of the institutions would leave us with no one but the tepid Brokenshire to ensure we got some of what Nicola Sturgeon calls "differentiation" out of the Brexit negotiations.

But replacing Arlene with Simon Hamilton might give us a closet Remainer to make our case. Alongside Conor Murphy?

And then there is the thing no one has anticipated, the big event for which no plans were made. Last year it was Brexit, though usually it is something unforeseen. We don't know what it will be, but this time 12 months from now, we will reflect on the year gone by and we will know then.

And we'll still have people blaming the year for the events that characterised it and comforting themselves with the fantasy that 2018 will put all that - whatever "that" is - behind us.

Belfast Telegraph


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