By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The Irish government breathed a sigh of relief when the Dail rose for the Christmas holidays after a number of unexpected "wobbles" at the end of the year, but the coalition’s stability will face much more severe tests in 1999.
The bookies are offering odds of 5-to-1 on an election before the millennium as a string of problems line up that have the potential to undermine the permanence of the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats deal.
GUBU returned the week Christmas to haunt the taoiseach when the dreaded name of Haughey delivered a unexpected sideswipe to Bertie Ahern. The reduction of his tax bill to zero by Ahern’s brother-in-law caused outrage.
The Haughey name also hovers over the two tribunals under Judges Flood and Moriarty, who will begin public hearings early in the year, but many other well-known names in politics could be sucked in when the evidence becomes public.
Both judges have been carrying on their investigations for over a year and widespread rumors suggest a number of glittering careers could be mired in sleaze.
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In February and March, the shadow arrangements for the new Northern Ireland administration will face the crunch of going live and pressure will increase for IRA decommissioning.
March will also be the deadline for testing the strength of the Irish hold on the European purse strings.
Decisions will be made on the share-out for the future for the Structural and Cohesion Funds from Brussels and the Agenda 2000 reforms, which will include a shake-up for the Common Agricultural Policy. The country’s farmers are dreading the outcome.
Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy will also be coping with the new strains of Ireland being a member of Euroland and having to cope with inflation with more limited powers.
In June, euro and local elections will provide benchmark outings for all parties.
Ahern has failed to win any of the byelections so far and will be eager for successes to copperfasten his own extraordinarily high opinion-poll ratings.
The PDs will be struggling desperately not to be eclipsed by Fianna Fail. Junior coalition partners have traditionally suffered as their larger partners get whatever kudos is going when the voters vote in judgment.
The two election outings will also be the first test of the new Labor-Democratic Left share-out of seats.
Tensions are expected in a number of constituencies, particularly the Dublin Euro seat, where former DL leader Prionsias De Rossa will be up against the proven battler Bernie Malone, who saw off a running mate imposed by Labor head-office last time out.
The economy is expected to continue to boom during the year, though growth is forecast to slow down to 7 or 8 percent. The property price spiral appears to be slowing and inflation looks like it has leveled off and may average about 2 percent in 1999.
Skills shortages will emerge as the major problem for the economy in 1999. The number of returning emigrants is expected to continue to grow and so will wage inflation in some sectors of the labor market as companies will be forced to pay more to get the skilled staff they need.
With unemployment down to 7.2 and the government hoping to get to down to 5 percent recruitment, agencies are increasingly looking abroad.
Tourism growth is also expected to continue. This sector one of the worst hit by the shortage of native workers and the traditional cead mile failte will be given to visitors from behind bars and reception desks by more German, French and Spanish accents.
The major irritant of the year for people will be the creaking public transport system and increasing gridlock on urban streets. Road rage will likely become a more frequent occurrence.
The Stock Exchange will be hoping the impact of global economic problems will not cause major problems for Irish companies and that big institutional fund managers do not pull substantial amounts of investment cash out of the market for spreading their investments on the Euroland exchanges.
One of the high points for the wheelers and dealers will be the Bord Telecom flotation later in the year when it will be launched as a rechristened Eircom.
It will also be a year dominated by pre-millennium plans and problems. Panic about the Year 2000 bug will intensify as the year goes on, Dublin’s new landmark cone will reach for the sky from O’Connell Street and a variety of special parties/plans/promotions for the big calendar switchover will be rolled out.