Sunday 23 November 2014

John Downing: Labour will just have to soldier on despite backbench TDs' dissent over welfare cuts

Published 10/12/2012 | 05:00

Picture: @stephenbyrne86

LABOUR really should stop trying to claim credit for the Budget horrors the party says it has stopped. In politics you very rarely – if ever – get credit for the harsh things you stop. You get even less credit for saying the horrors that happened would have been even more horrible only for your intervention.

Thus, it did not in the least help Pat Rabbitte last week to say the regrettable 19pc carers' respite grant cut was better than cutting the carers' weekly payment. The public do not know and they do not care about such internal workings, and usually find such statements smack of coming at the argument from the nether end.

Mr Rabbitte might be in more fruitful territory with his assertion last night that Ireland will not pay the €3.1bn Anglo Irish Bank promissory note when it falls due next March. His statement, on RTE's 'The Week In Politics' programme, may or may not be borne out by future events in Ireland's ongoing marathon battle to wring a better deal from the European Central Bank.

It will add grist to the Taoiseach's mill as he heads to Brussels for an EU leaders' summit this Thursday and Friday. It is also at very least an interesting talking point as Ireland prepares to take on the EU presidency from January 1.

But such statements might be aimed more at diverting some attention from the Government's Budget travails by stoking up the Government-EU 'fire'. Otherwise, it has been a weekend of simmering post-Budget political ferment as local people personally told TDs and Senators just what they thought of last Wednesday's grim outpourings.

In normal times, Budget 2013 would be heading for the news exit door by now. In normal times the political year's rhythm would be adjusting downwards to Christmas party and holiday preparation mode. But we have not seen normal times in Irish politics for five years now.

Labour, with five cabinet seats to Fine Gael's 10 and an even poorer Dail ratio given four defections, has few options but to soldier on. The main focus this coming week remains whether any Labour TDs break ranks in a mid-week vote on social welfare provisions.

There is considerable shape-throwing by some would-be Labour dissidents – but this is offset by a feeling that these dissidents would be deemed foolish to bow to a Sinn Fein-led effort to split them with a Dail motion. All parties must beware Sinn Fein crying easy crocodile tears for the poor and oppressed.

The focus on Labour might also be a deal unfair. But politics is so very rarely fair.

It is true that Fine Gael also has internal problems. As in Labour, much of this centres on the mean and squalid carers' respite grant cut. Up to a dozen FG TDs are said to be very exercised about the need to remove this cut.

Officially, both the Taoiseach and Tanaiste and all other senior ministers remain insistent that there is no room for an about-face. Apart from the fear of setting off a Budget chain-reaction of intense calls for other changes, there is also the matter of finding a similar saving within the social protection budget.

That could well mean obliging Social Protection Minister, Joan Burton, to find a mean and nasty cut elsewhere.

A key figure in the Labour dissent continues to be new Galway East TD, Colm Keaveney, a first ever deputy for the party in that constituency. Keaveney was elected chairman at the party's annual conference last April in a clear blow to leader Eamon Gilmore.

In the intervening months he has taken on the difficult job of trying to front the party's distinct identity while also remaining junior partner in a government grappling with recession. He is often at odds with his party leadership and has clashed with Fine Gael.

Keaveney has been directing his fire more at the €10 across-the-board child benefit cut. He has also been canvassing party members and insisting that important changes can be made to the details of Budget implementation. It is interesting to note here that an expert report on reforming child benefit to better serve poorer families remains to be acted upon by the Government.

That could offer some scope for face-saving. But the leeway to make such an initiative look the part – and the necessary cross-party goodwill – seem in critically short supply.

It will be a funny week at Leinster House. All eyes will again be on Labour. The party might have to just grin and bear it and hope the new year brings better political weather.

Irish Independent

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