Analysis

Thursday 31 July 2014

Coalition big freeze shows no signs of thawing after bitter Budget

Fionnan Sheahan

Published 08/12/2012|05:00

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In a symbolic sign of the pettiness between the two parties, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin posed for separate Budget day photograph sessions on the steps of Government Buildings.

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The ministers were making consecutive speeches in the Dail an hour later, delivering the tax and spending elements of Budget 2013.

It was planned that the Finance Minister and Public Spending Minister would stand together for the traditional snap of the minister with the Budget speech.

The Labour Party side certainly thought so but Fine Gael objected, so the pair trooped out separately. The fallout from the bitter Budget negotiations will reverberate for some time to come.

In recent months, a growing arrogance has developed about Fine Gael, while there has been a corresponding profound sense of vulnerability about Labour.

Fine Gael backbenchers aren't exactly happy with having to sell €3.5bn worth of taxes and cuts, including a new property tax and the €10 a month reduction in child benefit.

But the party's TDs are largely satisfied the Budget was shaped by their side of the Coalition and they will defend the contents.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny noticeably spoke yesterday of the "mandate" given to the Government by the Irish people being to sort out the public finances.

He insisted the Budget would be passed and that the decisions taken were in the nation's interest.

The abortion debate probably came at the worst possible time for the Coalition.

Unquestionably, it forced the Government's hand in making a decision sooner than expected – even if the expert panel report meant there is an inevitability about the decision anyway.

But the veering towards a Labour Party position resulted in the accusation within Fine Gael of the Red tail wagging the Blue dog.

Labour's apparent victory on the abortion question inadvertently became a backdrop within Fine Gael for the Budget negotiations.

Any further examples of seemingly yielding ground to Labour would have generated a backlash against Fine Gael ministers from groups of TDs feeling they were not represented in the abortion debate.

Labour's problems are that many of their achievements are marked by curbing Fine Gael's excesses. The party can arguably chalk up continuing the Croke Park Agreement, including the commitment to not cut core pay.

And the maintenance of basic social welfare rates can also be credited to Labour. But the party will get little or no thanks for the defence of: "If it wasn't for us. . ." Certainly, there was a foreboding look on many Labour backbenchers faces this week.

Last week was as near to breaking point as the Coalition has come.

Once faith is broken, it's hard to replace. Labour feels Fine Gael's behaviour in the Budget talks – demanding social welfare cuts in return for a USC hike for the wealthy – was unwarranted and surprising.

Matters came to a head and a boiling point in a way that Labour felt was unnecessary.

Given the parties have to stick together for another three and a bit years, there is time to repair the rift but it doesn't auger well.

Despite the fractious formulation of the Budget, the parties appear determined to not allow the Budget to unravel.

After the tough negotiations, neither party wants to reopen the book again with the potential for unpalatable items that came off the table reappearing.

Compared to last year, the Government is holding a firmer line. On the night of Budget 2012, Mr Noonan was already indicating a reverse on the disability allowance for teenagers, which ended up being the first of three reversals.

Three days on this time and Cabinet ministers are facing up to the pressure, with Mr Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton all publicly insisting the Government is not for turning.

After the squabbling of earlier in the week, Fine Gael and Labour minister are realising they have to stand together now.

Irish Independent

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