Wednesday 28 September 2016

Cormac McQuinn: FF seeks to win hearts and votes of Independents

Cormac McQuinn sifts through the party's bid to get support for Micheal Martin to lead a minority government

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

'Fianna Fail Priorities for Government" is 53 pages of policy the party hopes will win the hearts - and Dail votes for Taoiseach - of Independent TDs.

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As titles go, it's not as poetic as 'An Ireland for All' - the name of its actual manifesto.

But then you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.

And with the party referred to as "Fiona Fail" at one point - it seems to be some hastily put-together prose at that.

The document was circulated to the Independent Alliance, and a separate 'rural five' group of Independents.

Where it differs from the manifesto is in increasing the number of priorities from four to six and setting deadlines for implementing them, at least in part.

The "core priorities" Fianna Fail fought the election on - creating jobs and supporting enterprise; cutting costs for families and improving services; tackling crime and developing community services; and dealing with the housing crisis - are all broadly covered under similar headings in the document.

However, two priorities - political reform and spreading the economic recovery - are identified with chapter headings in their own right for the first time.

"The way we do politics has to change," the chapter on reform begins in a statement that could be a comment on the unprecedented fragmentation of political groupings in the Dail as a bid to win support from diverse groups of Independents that want reform.

Each chapter begins with commentary about what Fianna Fail claims are the failings of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

In this case it lists failure to deliver "its promised package of holistic political reform".

The section specifically on Oireachtas reform runs to less than 400 words in Fianna Fail's manifesto.

Here the chapter on political reform is pushing 1,000 words and it's the very first section in the document.

Party leader Micheal Martin was quick to come out seeking time to discuss political reform in the days following the election, so it's no surprise that it gets such prominence here - especially with reform being a key concern of Shane Ross's Independent Alliance.

Under the heading, Fianna Fail outlines how it wants to reorganise government departments.

It would establish a Department of Rural, Community and Gaeltacht Affairs.

This is a name-change from its manifesto plan to create "Minister for Community Support, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs".

It's a small tweak but it emphasises the rural part of the portfolio, perhaps to entice Independents that want a rural affairs minister.

In fact there's a clear theme throughout of offering titbits to the rural Independents like Clare GP Michael Harty and Cork South-West's Michael Collins who campaigned against the closure of garda stations in his area.

Among them are promises of more broadband investment within a year, to increase and expand the rural GP allowance, and a review of the decision to close rural garda stations.

"Rural Ireland has been neglected for five years and this needs to change," a section on rural communities under pressure reads.

Fianna Fail is definitely singing the rural Independents' tune.

Similarly - it was in Fianna Fail's manifesto - but the party wants to create a Minister for Climate Change which will combine functions from other portfolios, including environment, flood defence, energy and transport.

Its inclusion with prominence in the mini-manifesto - which describes climate change as an "existential threat" - could perhaps be seen as an attempt to appeal to the Green Party.

While the document reads with a certain amount of 'one-for-everyone-in-the-audience' feel in terms of policy, it does avoid the kind of parish-pump promises seen in previous deals with Independents.

The second priority that gets singled out for new prominence is chapter two, 'Strengthening and spreading the economic recovery'.

It appears to be a direct response to Fine Gael's failed election slogan 'Let's Keep the Recovery Going' - a message that played well in more affluent areas of Dublin, but fell flat in rural regions to that party's detriment.

"While there is an economic recovery, it is two-tiered, with many areas both in urban and rural areas across Ireland not feeling the recovery," Fianna Fail states.

In its commentary it says that in the year to quarter four of 2015, Dublin accounted for 52pc of the employment gains and points out that more than half of the country's GDP was generated in the Greater Dublin area.

That's put in the context of London, which the Fianna Fail paper says accounts for 20pc of the United Kingdom's GDP.

Fianna Fail says it wants income tax and USC reform and simplification, equal tax treatment for the self-employed and to revise the capital spending plan to "accelerate" its most jobs friendly aspects among the measures to spread the economic recovery.

As in the full manifesto, the housing emergency gets its own chapter and this chimes with the broad consensus across Leinster House that it's the most pressing issue facing TDs - so no surprise there.

A Minister for Housing is promised within six months, along with an all-party Oireachtas Committee to recommend and implement actions to tackle the problem "as a matter of urgency".

The party also sets out its plans for Health, Education and Crime and Policing.

Irish Water may have been a "red-line" issue, according to Barry Cowen in the days after the election, but here it's relegated to page 47 as part of a chapter called 'Cutting costs for families and communities under pressure'.

The same chapter has sections on climate change, Northern Ireland and 'Brexit' and could be viewed as where the authors included items for which they couldn't find another place.

The policy paper will win no awards for its prose. It scrambles to cover the bases of what Independents are after and has all the appearances of being quickly written.

But Fianna Fail has played its hand and set out its stall. Now it's over to the Independents to see if they'll allow themselves to be wooed.

Sunday Independent

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