Fine Gael prepared to sacrifice USC cuts as Kenny vows to 'fight on'
Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny has signalled that his pledge to abolish the Universal Social Charge is up for negotiation - as he laughed off accusations voters rejected him at the election.
A team of ministers and backbenchers met with 15 Independents and two Green Party TDs for more than seven hours yesterday - but only managed to discuss housing policy in any depth.
However the independents repeatedly pressed Mr Kenny on why he hasn't yet contacted Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to review their options in light of the election result.
The Taoiseach told the gathering he was not adverse to speaking with Mr Martin, but wanted a solid proposal for a minority government first.
The Irish Independent has learned that during the meeting Westmeath TD Kevin 'Boxer' Moran put it to Mr Kenny that voters did not want him as Taoiseach anymore.
A source said Mr Kenny "fumbled" his answer initially before vowing to "fight on" as both Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader.
"Personal tax rates and the future of the USC" were listed among 88 items up for debate on a document circulated to those present.
But there were mixed messages from senior Fine Gael sources last night, with some insisting they had "not moved one inch" from their plan to abolish USC by 2021 - while others accepted a new tax plan will have to developed as part of the discussions.
Just days before polling Finance Minister Michael Noonan said their position on USC was more important than any other pre-election promise. "Of all the commitments we're making, this is the central commitment in our tax policies," he said.
The party pledged to cut USC by 1pc next year in a move that would have cost €250m.
Fine Gael were last night "delighted" that the so-called 'Rural Five', the Independent Alliance, Green Party and independents Katherine Zappone and Maureen O'Sullivan all committed to attending a second round of talks next Tuesday.
By then they will have prepared a detailed discussion paper on housing and an early draft of proposals for rural Ireland. Depending on time they plan to advance talks on mental health and disabilities. "This is a big start and all 17 are still engaged - but this is going to be an extremely long process ," said a Fine Gael source.
However, a number of independents said that they remain sceptical about whether the format will lead to a big vote for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.
"A lot of us are getting in the neck for being in the room. It's not so much Fine Gael that people see as the problem, it's Enda Kenny," said one TD.
On his way out from the talks in Government Buildings last night, Fine Gael's Simon Harris said: "A lot of today was just getting to know each other a bit better. Understanding the policies and the characters."
In a blog, Roscommon independent Denis Naughten wrote: "It was also made crystal clear at the meeting today by a number of Independent TDs that no agreement can be achieved without the co-operation of Fianna Fail, Labour and the Social Democrats and that engagement must now take place with the three parties."
The key items discussed by Fine gael and Independents
1) Housing shortage and homelessness
- Role of NAMA
- Local Property Tax
- Social Housing investment
- Student accommodation
2) Jobs and Rural Development
- Next generation broadband
- Regional Jobs Plans
- Town and village renewal
- Local tourism
3) Youth Affairs and the Elderly
- Affordable childcare
- GP care for children
- Class sizes
- Nursing home care
4) Management of the Economy, Public Finances and the Labour Markets
- Tax spending split and allocation of future Government resources
- Personal tax rates and the future of the USC
- New tax broadening measures
- Tax and welfare treatment of the self-employed
5) Health and Disability
- Funding for the healthcare system
- Emergency Departments
- Rural practices
- The HSE, Hospital Trusts and Community Health Organisations
6) Political and Constitutional Reform
- Dail reform
- Budgeting process
- Speaking time for public representatives
- Parliamentary investigations
7) Climate Change and the Environment
- Climate change plans until 2050
- Electric vehicles
- Flood initiatives
- Water management
8) Crime prevention and Justice
- Recruitment to An Garda Síochána
- Community policing
- Bail laws and tagging
- Gangland crime