Friday 21 October 2016

How a few free pizzas finally got tricky Budget talks over the line

Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30

Paschal Donohoe is all smiles on Budget Day Photo: Tom Burke
Paschal Donohoe is all smiles on Budget Day Photo: Tom Burke

At the 11th hour, Michéal Martin came on the line in a bid to resolve the deadlock over the introduction of the increased welfare payments.

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Fianna Fáil wanted the increase of €5 to kick in from January but Fine Gael insisted they could only bring it in from June, for reasons of financial constraints.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

The money just wasn't there, they argued.

The situation became tense as discussions dragged on and the Fianna Fáil leader all but threatened to pull the plug. If there was a 'red line issue' in this Budget, then this was it.

"It was high stakes but Fine Gael didn't seem to get that. Michéal made it clear that a deal had to be done or the whole thing was over," said a source. "Fine Gael didn't seem to get how serious he was about that."

A compromise of March 2017 for the increase was eventually reached and the Budget 2017 negotiations steadied, sailing calmly into harbour with mesmerising stealth and an almost unnatural maturity.

When Budget day dawned, the sounds emanating from Leinster House were much more quiet than the bellows to which we had become accustomed, both in fine and stormy weather.

Could this be the moment that Irish politics finally grew up?

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," guffawed a Government backbencher.

Nevertheless, it was the first test of the new Coalition - and they passed it. You could almost hear Enda Kenny's exhalation of relief.

It is a racing certainty that the Budget will be passed - but with the fear of the Brexit fallout looming large, with Article 50 set to be triggered by British Prime Minister Theresa May no later than the end of March next, this is no time to be jubilant.

"We'll catch a breath with Budget 2017," said a senior Fianna Fáil source grimly, saying that next year's coffers will "probably look different again".

The growth figures envisaged last May are unlikely to turn out that way, he conceded carefully.

One of the general criticisms about Budget 2017 is that it was more of a political document than a financial one.

And that was true - but only because it had to be.

All the foreseeable problems had been tackled well in advance, with the groundwork starting back in May when the Confidence and Supply Agreement - a sort of entente cordiale between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - was devised for the purposes of forming a government.

With the Independent Alliance thrown into the mix, it was a three horse race with plenty of 'red line issues'.

The only problem was how to find the money to fund them.

It had been a "tough few weeks" leading up to last Tuesday, claimed the Fianna Fáil source.

"There was a lot of pressure and expectations from our parliamentary party and from the various lobby groups. The agendas often clashed," he revealed.

"You were being told to stand up to them," he said of Fine Gael.

He raised his eyebrows with meaningful exasperation as he said that Paschal Donohoe and Michael Noonan had eventually 'found' the extra money needed to bring in the social welfare increases from March.

He laughed when asked if the Budget day speeches had been tricky for Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary to devise - having on the one hand to welcome the Government offering and on the other hand to pick holes in it. Instead, he said they are happy that they stamped their mark on the Budget, staking out their issues.

"We had to create our identity. We're not the Labour party," he scoffed.

"We have to stand up to them. We weren't going to roll over for Fine Gael."

Asked if he thought Fianna Fáil would remain in the game for the agreed three budgets, he said:

"We'll be here as long as we get delivery on our priorities."

"This is a two-way deal. That's the way it works. We won't be rolled over," he repeated grimly.


Super Junior Minister with Responsibility for Disabilities, Finian McGrath, said that for the Independent Alliance, the Budgetary negotiations had managed to get in a few local or smaller issues. He was happy to get an upgrade of the A&E at Beaumont Hospital over the line.

Boxer Moran got an agreement for a school in Athlone, while Shane Ross had "other concerns" - though the Garda Station at Stepaside was not mentioned this time. "But a lot of this stuff was already agreed," said Finian.

Their real coup was the €5 a month reduction in prescription charges for the over-70s, along with the 85pc restoration of the Christmas bonus. The Taoiseach was present for a lot of these meetings - in particular chairing some sessions on Monday - and he was "in rocking good form", said Finian.

The Alliance had initially wanted the prescription charges measures to apply to the over-65s, but at 6pm that evening Noonan and Donohoe said they were having difficulty in getting the funding.

But the meeting remained courteous at all times, he added. Even when frustration mounted over the figures, Shane Ross or 'Boxer' Moran would suggest an adjournment to let off steam.

"There were no hissy fits, no emotion," added Finian.

At 9pm on Sunday night, Donohoe and Noonan came into the Taoiseach's office where the meetings were taking place and "threw a couple of pizzas on the table and said 'get stuck in lads'," he revealed.

"The blood sugar levels were low - we were delighted with that."

An eventual compromise was reached to benefit the over-70s instead, with the ministers promising it would "be the start of a process."

"It's not a big win but it's the start of rebuilding Health," said Finian.

Similarly, the ministers had tried to convince the Alliance that only 80pc of the Christmas bonus could be managed.

"But we banged the table and we got the 85pc," said Finian firmly.

In this, they had the backing of Leo Varadkar.

While the Minister for Social Protection and Finian McGrath might come from "very different backgrounds politically and ideologically, they were both singing off the same hymn sheet when it came to the result for the elderly," said a spokesperson for the Minister.

Leo, too, had been an ally of Fianna Fáil in insisting that the €5 a week increase in payments would apply to the recipients of most weekly welfare payments - including those on State pensions, widows, lone parents, people with disabilities, jobseekers, as well as those on "farm assist".

The spokesman said that Leo was "acutely conscious" that while pensioners have seen an increase, the blind, the widowed, the carers and the disabled have seen nothing extra since 2008, "only cuts," said the spokesman. In the end, that was what Budget 2017 comprised - the eking out of a modest gain in an attempt to meet the pressing demands of so many.

And all against the backdrop of a Brexit which could snatch away our paltry fivers in one fell swoop.

No wonder the Government continues to hold its breath.

Irish Independent

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