Candid Kenny ramps up tension
Labour is left seeing red after throwaway Dail comment
TAOISEACH Enda Kenny heightened the Budget tensions yesterday between Fine Gael and Labour on child benefit and health cuts by angering Labour backbenchers with throwaway Dail comments.
It is understood that one option being explored by the Government is to cut the child benefit payment -- but compensate children in poorer families by increasing means-tested payments such as the Family Income Supplement.
Mr Kenny said last night that the Government was having "very good discussions" about the Budget -- and was still considering how to meet the target of €3.8bn in spending cuts and tax increases.
But he almost caused a walkout by some Labour backbenchers who were unhappy with dismissive remarks he made earlier in the Dail about Labour's pre-election promises to protect child benefit and third-level fees.
They were also annoyed when he pledged to make Tanaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore "an honest leader" -- after being quizzed about whether Labour was breaking its election promises.
Tensions in the Coalition are growing because Fine Gael Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Labour Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin are in disagreement over how to implement €500m of health cuts.
Mr Howlin wants them to be implemented in this Budget, whereas Mr Reilly is protesting that he needs more time to do them over several years.
He has painted a worst-case scenario of cuts, including a €50 tax on 1.5 million medical card holders, a €1.50 increase in prescription charges and the closure of 40 nursing home.
And Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is battling to avoid a €10 cut in child benefit payments.
The Cabinet is due to meet again today to discuss job creation plans.
But matters were made worse when Mr Kenny embarrassed his coalition partners by telling Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins that not all of the promises in the Labour election manifesto were contained in the Programme for Government.
"Therefore, the deputy is right, the Labour Party programme was clear prior to the election," he said.
And Mr Kenny hit a raw nerve when he responded directly to an invitation from Mr Higgins to make an honest man of Mr Gilmore over his promise to prevent child benefit cuts.
"To answer his questions, I will make an honest leader of the Tanaiste, Deputy Gilmore," he said.
Although Mr Gilmore was not present in the Dail chamber, Mr Kenny's remarks were greeted with grimaces and stony faces on the Labour backbenches.
One backbencher -- Clare TD Michael McNamara -- left the Dail chamber abruptly before Mr Kenny had finished responding to Mr Higgins.
One Labour backbencher said that Mr Kenny's description of Mr Gilmore was "off-the-wall commentary" and that it had "gone down like a lead balloon".
"There was quite a degree of alarm in regard to the boundaries that the Taoiseach breached," he said.
As the debate over Budget cuts continued yesterday, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin accused the Government of engaging in a "deeply cynical practice" of frightening the living daylights out of people before any final decisions had been taken.
Fine Gael Wexford TD Dr Liam Twomey said that as the only practicing GP in the Dail, he was concerned at the impact of a €50 medical card charge.
And he said that if 40 community nursing homes were closed down, there would be no place to discharge patients and the Government could "kiss goodbye" to the prospect of getting A&E departments working again.
But Dr Twomey said that huge savings could be made if the standard working day for nurses, consultants and other health service workers was changed from 9am-5pm to 8am to 8pm -- as promised under the Croke Park Agreement.