There are many significant problems facing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. RTÉ’s Political Coverage Editor David Murphy looks at five issues for the year ahead.

Brexit

This is the biggest nightmare facing the Taoiseach.

Irish politicians and officials have no clear idea what the country is facing less than three months ahead of the most significant threat to the economy.

It is still far from certain that British Prime Minister Theresa May will get political backing for her Withdrawal Agreement.

The alternative is a hard Brexit which would be far more damaging.

Many Irish politicians believe an extension of Article 50 is possible which could buy Britain more time.

From the point of view of the Government, it is going to be remarkably hard to prepare for any number of scenarios which may or may not happen.

Homelessness

This has put huge humanitarian strain on thousands who cannot find adequate accommodation.

Arguably it is a stain on the reputation of any developed country.

There are many different ways to look at the scale of the problem, but even the Department of Housing’s own statistics show that the issue has been worsening for five years. 

The number of homeless adults in November 2018 was 6,157 - in the same month in 2014 it was 2,720. 

Statistics compiled by charity Focus Ireland in November 2014 show there were 3,607 homeless adults and children, but by November 2018 it had increased to 9,968.

While many initiatives have been rolled out, they have not kept pace with the escalating problem.

There is little improvement for families without a home.

In 2014 the Fine Gael-Labour coalition announced a plan with a view to "ending involuntary long-term homelessness by the end of 2016."

Five years on from that promise, the struggle for homeless families continues.  

Health

The way in which Ireland tackles some serious illnesses has improved, but conditions in many hospitals have not.

Figures from the nurses’ organisations, the INMO, and the Health Service Executive show overcrowding remains a persistent problem for most of the year.

The Government has opened more beds and plans to add more early this year, but the overcrowding issue continues to cause significant distress to patients and their families.

This year will also see the Tribunal which is inquiring into the Cervical Check controversy commence.

Judge Charles Meehan who recommended the establishment of a tribunal has said the pain and suffering of women affected "cannot be overstated", adding that some of the effects of surgery are "harrowing."

Economy

On the face of it the economy looks great. Unemployment is low, growth is strong and the Government is running a surplus.

In fairness, these are huge achievements after Ireland recovered quickly from the financial crisis.  

But do not be deceived.

The national debt is an enormous €200bn, interest rates are likely to rise. Ireland pays €16.5m every day in interest on its borrowings.

While rates on the national debt are less than 1% they will inevitably rise – so repayments will increase in future years.

The independent body which keeps an eye on the public finances, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, has already given the Government a stark warning that it has not done enough to rein in spending, which leaves Ireland exposed to shocks just as Brexit lurks around the corner.

Climate change

This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing humanity.

Leo Varadkar has accurately described Ireland as a "laggard" on the issue as it will miss emission reduction targets and faces significant EU fines.

His Government is expected to increase carbon taxes in order to discourage the use of fossil fuels.

In Australia the taxes were abandoned due to public opposition and recent riots on the streets of Paris caused a U-turn on French plans to hike the cost of diesel and petrol.

The experience elsewhere will serve as a reminder that imposing additional charges may cause significant political headaches.

Few politicians will forget protests over water charges.

It is no surprise Mr Varadkar has already raised the prospect of returning the money generated by carbon taxes to taxpayers in other ways in an effort to take the sting out of the levy.