Saturday 22 October 2016

When two parties write the Budget, who really owns it?

Published 07/10/2016 | 02:30

Transport Minister Pascal Donohoe Picture: Steve Humphreys
Transport Minister Pascal Donohoe Picture: Steve Humphreys

Pascal Donohoe did not appreciate the joke. The normally affable Minister for Public Expenditure was asked when his opposite number in Fianna Fáil, Dara Calleary, would be writing the Budget Day speech.

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Stony silence followed as Mr Donohoe decided not to react to the group of journalists standing outside Government Buildings.

It came a day after Social Protection Minster Leo Varadkar was asked whether Willie O'Dea was actually formulating his department's plans.

Mr Varadkar decided to laugh but the question threw him too, as was obvious by his response: "The Budget will be announced next Tuesday by Paschal Donohoe and Micheál Martin … or, uhhh… Anyway, almost…"

The Freudian slip drew a chorus of sniggering from the media while Mr Varadkar looked a little embarrassed.

But his mistake reflects an issue that is worrying many in Fine Gael.

Fianna Fáil will today outline its priorities for Budget 2017 - moving away from the tradition of compiling a costed alternative Budget.

But, reading between the lines, you can take it that most of its "priorities" will be in the Budget. Otherwise it won't pass on Tuesday.

As of last night, all sides of Leinster House expect the €1bn Budget to get through without much rancour.

However, Fine Gael backbenchers are worried that Fianna Fáil will take credit for any bit of good news that emerges over the coming days.

At the same time Fianna Fáil will need to pinpoint a few key areas of attack to maintain its status as the main party of Opposition.

The balancing act will be particularly difficult for Michael McGrath and Mr Calleary. They will have to respond to Michael Noonan and Mr Donohoe on the hoof.

The two able politicians can't stand up and praise a masterful Budget but neither can they tear it apart. So instead they will try to hone in on areas such as education where their demand for an extra €100m simply won't be delivered.

Micheál Martin's party will also be critical of the first-time buyers' grant, having claimed privately in recent days that it will "inflame" the market.

And then they will point towards the never-ending waiting lists in health, the need to roll out rural broadband more quickly and the crisis in funding for transport.

However, Fianna Fáil backbenchers are worried too because once their representatives sit down, Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty will rise to his feet and immediately point out that this is a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil Budget.

In short, Fine Gael is worried that it is being overshadowed as the main Government party by Fianna Fáil, and Fianna Fáil is worried that it is being overshadowed as the main party of Opposition by Sinn Féin.

It's a vicious circle that will make for one of the strangest Budget days in recent history.

Ultimately, Fianna Fáil have as much to lose from this Budget as Fine Gael.

If it goes down badly, both parties will be derided - so expect both to play it safe for now.

Irish Independent

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