Monday 23 October 2017

Labour 'prepared to quit coalition' over €100m plan for education cuts

Ruairi Quinn
Ruairi Quinn

Daniel McConnell and  John Drennan

THE Labour Party's position in Government is "precarious" this weekend over €100m in planned education cuts in the Budget.

Senior Government sources revealed that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn will only be able to make his Troika target by introducing a swathe of savage cuts that "no Labour minister could ever fathom introducing".

The deepening crisis follows a three-hour pre-Cabinet meeting of Labour ministers last Wednesday concerning the forthcoming Budget.

At the meeting, Mr Quinn, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and ministers Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin and Pat Rabbitte, concluded that the effects of the €100m in education cuts would have disastrous consequences for the party, whose support is currently rooted at eight per cent.

Numerous sources indicated that Labour was even prepared to reluctantly quit the coalition rather that implement the cuts. Senior party figures also fear the extent of the cuts will lead to a revolt by party backbenchers.

A Government official told the Sunday Independent: "There is real concern as to how the hell we will do it."

Throughout the Cabinet, there is deep sympathy for the difficulties facing Mr Quinn, indicating he may ultimately be given some leeway.

This is in sharp contrast to the lack of patience around the Cabinet table for the behaviour of "problematic" ministers Joan Burton and James Reilly.

"There is a lot of goodwill toward Ruairi compared to Joan. It is like comparing the genuine case to the strategic defaulter," the senior Government source said.

The Sunday Independent can also reveal that Labour is insisting on a reduction in the Budget adjustment, from €3.1bn to €2.4bn.

But Fine Gael is still holding firm to the €3.1bn target.

Meanwhile, sources also claimed relations between Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and his deputy leader, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, have become "severely strained" and that the pair are "not communicating".

One Labour source said: "The level of communication between the leader and his deputy is frankly bizarre. It is not normal."

However, sources close to Ms Burton last night claimed that the relationship was "cordial and businesslike. Both recognise they have a job to do in Government".

For Mr Quinn to achieve his targets, Labour ministers and TDs would have to stand over cuts to special needs assistants, a significant "bursting" of pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools, cuts to the student grants, as well as significant further cuts to third- level funding.

A further complication for Mr Quinn is the delay on the part of the teachers' union in deciding whether to accept or reject the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement.

While the final definitive figure in education won't be set until the last week of September, it has been confirmed that the margin of doubt is "less than 10 per cent either side of the €100m mark".

There is also continuing concern surrounding Ms Burton's willingness to deliver €440m in social welfare cuts.

The minister has repeatedly said she will be unable to make her target and that her department has made more than €3bn in cuts in the past three years.

But officials in charge of the Budget are adamant that her targets are met to satisfy the Troika.

However, Finance Minister Michael Noonan is this weekend still holding a tough line on the €3.1bn Budget target. Last Thursday, he reportedly warned the Cabinet of the need to hold firm and that "the eyes of (ECB President) Mario Draghi are still on us".

However, in a further complication, the Sunday Independent has also learned that unexpected costs from the liquidation of IBRC may seriously reduce the Government's room for manoeuvre on Budget day.

"There will be some movement from the promissory notes, but by the time all the ongoing fall-out from the liquidation of the IBRC note is included that will shrink and shrink and shrink," one senior source told the Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent

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