No annual review of Northern Ireland affairs would be complete without mention of political disagreements; over the past year or so we haven’t been short of formal agreements either.
In December 2014 our political parties hailed the Stormont House Agreement. It soon fell by the way side following disputes over implementing welfare reform, but this November politicians brought us the Fresh Start Agreement.
In the new year we’ll welcome yet another new beginning with the DUP’s Arlene Foster replacing Peter Robinson as First Minister.
Despite political infighting, walk outs and seemingly endless negotiations, the beginning and end of 2015 will have witnessed genuine attempts at facilitating agreement here. Elsewhere, such as Paris, opening and closing months marked by violence have not been so hopeful.
Across and beyond the continent, terror, security and unhelpful rhetoric dominate the political agenda in times of increasing global uncertainty.
Elections, unionist unity and discord
The biggest political event of 2015 was undoubtedly the UK general election, with the biggest winners being David Cameron’s Conservative Party winning an unexpected overall majority at Westminster.
Here, unionists were big winners too. The DUP regained East Belfast which they lost to the Alliance Party in 2010, but it was the UUP who surprised pundits by winning two seats having previously held none.
Unionist unity looked almost straightforward then, but inter-party relations soon soured.
When – following a murder in Belfast linked to the supposedly defunct Provisional IRA – Mike Nesbitt’s UUP quit the NI Executive, Peter Robinson and DUP colleagues vowed to leave the stage too.
Instead of actually quitting, though, for weeks on end DUP party ministers resigned, took up and resigned their jobs again, but the Ulster Unionists had already made the headlines.
With the NI Assembly elections due in May 2016, inter-unionist accusations and counter-accusations of flip-flopping, cowardice and populism signal that party battle lines are already being drawn.
Crises on the continent
‘Will-they-won’t-they’ politics was not unique to Northern Ireland. After months of negotiations the Greek government gave in to the demands of its financial creditors, agreeing to a renewed economic bailout.
In the immediate aftermath of this deal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely perceived by media outlets as being the strong woman of Europe, politically and fiscally ruthless and hell bent on consolidating German EU dominance. Yet what a difference a few months can make.
As the Syrian refugee crisis brewed it was Merkel who led calls for calm and extended the hand of compassion by opening Germany’s doors and encouraging fellow EU member states to follow suit.
It’s no coincidence that Merkel, providing leadership to a politically and economically fragile EU and Eurozone, was named person of the year by both the Financial Times and TIME magazine.
What is bizarre is the rise of polar opposites on both sides of the Atlantic Sea: in Jeremy Corbyn, elected leader of the UK Labour Party, and in Donald Trump who currently leads the race for the US Republican Party presidential nomination.
2015 was certainly not without its political outsiders and ‘disruptors’.
Looking to 2016: Elections and ‘the’ referendum
In 2016 the jostling for unionist dominance looks set to dominate much of the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign. Interesting also will be Sinn Féin’s campaigns for the Assembly here and the Dáil in the Irish Republic.
Perhaps even more unpredictable (even exciting) could be the impending UK referendum over its EU membership, a date for which is yet to be declared.
All three votes have huge potential to settle or wholly transform the political landscape of the island of Ireland, the make-up of the United Kingdom and the union of Europe.