Willie Kealy: FF can find its voice by speaking for unprotected
The main opposition party seems to have abandoned the most vulnerable constituency,
THERE were, we were told, no winners in this Budget. You wouldn't know it from watching Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.
Enda's puppet-like performance conveyed exactly nothing, of course. But the others came across as having done a good job, with great regret, naturally, but quietly proud of their achievements.
Sometimes the pride was not so well disguised, like when Michael Noonan went head to head with Michael McGrath of Fianna Fail, and metaphorically patted himself on the back for a political job well done in vanquishing his young opponent.
Sometimes it was just nasty, like when Pat Rabbitte told the younger Cowen that, in essence, he shouldn't open his mouth because of the family name he bears. Young Cowen was doing his best. He was showing some mettle. Which, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rest of his party.
In political terms, the Government should have been reeling from the wrath of the people as expressed trenchantly by the opposition. But it didn't turn out like that. Instead it became of game of cleverality, a joust in which the person who could remember the most figures would appear to come out on top.
This was not all the fault of the Government. The Government, knowing it was bringing in the toughest, most savage Budget in the history of the State, was probably up for an old-fashioned drag-down tussle. But for some reason, Fianna Fail, the main opposition party which is currently riding high in the polls, was not. It's a fair assumption that Fianna Fail's apparent new popularity is down to the anger of the people being channelled through the party in the hope that, with the talent of its front-bench members, it would explode onto the intended target – the Government.
But that didn't happen. And because it didn't happen there is a good chance that that popularity could be fleeting. Worse, from a Fianna Fail point of view, some of that popularity could transfer to its current main rivals for the people's affections, Sinn Fein.
The most important thing for any political party to know is, what is your constituency? There was a lot of concentration on an entity called the 'Squeezed Middle' before the Budget. These were the middle-income earners with children and a mortgage under pressure, and a home in negative equity who were put to the pin of their collar to meet their outgoings, but were largely just about coping.
The argument put forward on their behalf was that they couldn't take much more. So who was making their case? Well, mainly it was Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. This would appear to be a constituency that was pretty well catered for politically. And at the end of the day, Fine Gael listened to itself and the 'Squeezed Middle' breathed a sigh of relief.
But there are other constituencies. There are the poor, the long-term ill, the long-term unemployed and the newly unemployed who are still burdened with debt from when they had employment. Who speaks for them?
It certainly isn't Labour anymore. Labour has worked itself into a position where it has become the champion of the public sector worker. These it has protected well in the Budget and elsewhere.
And Fianna Fail seems to have followed a similar strategy plumping for the 'Squeezed Middle' – an important Fianna Fail core support base, but not one that should encourage a ghetto mentality – leaving a lot of floating voters. . . well, floating.
So what happens to these floaters when Labour turns its back and Fianna Fail presents indifference. Obviously they will turn to Sinn Fein. That's the same Sinn Fein that Fianna Fail has to fight on an almost daily basis to maintain supremacy in opposition. Sinn Fein did bring a little passion and outrage to the Budget debate. Mary Lou McDonald could be all-Ireland champion at this. You wouldn't want to meet her down a dark alley when she's in full flow. But Sinn Fein outrage is not a policy, it is no kind of remedy. Sinn Fein is not a party that offers solutions. Not workable ones, anyway. And for some reason, last week, neither did Fianna Fail.
It allowed the property tax to get lost in the furore about "respite" and child benefits. If you were conspiracy-minded, you might think this was the Government's – or at least Labour's – plan. And now that the diversion has served its purpose, changes can be made during the vote. But nobody in Fianna Fail came forward to point out that the reason the Government has to pilfer relatively petty amounts from the poor boxes of the disabled and their carers is that the Croke Park Agreement prevents them from even considering the obvious alternatives.
It also forces them in the direction of options like 3,500 public service redundancies because cutting pay is not allowed.
If Fianna Fail wanted to speak for the poor and the downtrodden, as well as upholding democracy, these are points they should have hammered home.
Maybe there are some in Fianna Fail who have a homogenised view of these floating voters. Maybe they see them as work-shy layabouts unwilling to help themselves and with their hands permanently outstretched. If they do, they need to get a little more nuanced. They have to realise we are also talking here about the genuinely sick and disabled. We are talking about those who really, really want to work but cannot get a job.
Maybe there are people in Fianna Fail who know this, but have somehow gotten it into their heads that these are not typical Fianna Fail voters, not "our kind of people".
They need to go back to their roots, to rediscover the party of the little people, the people of no property, the people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day.
"Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle." While some may live in hope of a new political party, in the here and now we must work with what we have. Fianna Fail can already tick the "Reduce" box. Now they must work through to "Renewal."
And this is worth doing not just so they don't throw away a whole constituency within the electorate. They may find that if they could show a little empathy with the most vulnerable in society, they would actually be reflecting the feelings of the majority of the "Squeezed Middle" who are no more homogenised than any other sector. They are not all smug and selfish. And they know the difference between people with a sense of entitlement, and those who are genuinely in need.
They know too that nobody is going mad on €188 a week dole money. But they know some people are having a high old time adding this and other benefits to what they make either in the black economy or through crime.
They know that there are only two mechanisms to tackle this – means-testing and fraud detection – mechanisms which the public service has consistently failed or refused to implement in any sort of an efficient manner. To be in favour of such measures is not to be hard-hearted. Indeed, there are many in need who would favour their implementation. Nobody from Fianna Fail mentioned this last week.
Nor did they point out the very obvious inequity in the Government's decision that any pension over €60,000 would lose all forms of State aid through tax allowances.
Yes, €60,000 seems a fair upper limit to set. But it's not for everyone, just those who aren't lucky enough to be a public servant, a politician or a top banker. For the privileged ones, there isn't just some aid from the State. Their pensions, paying out hundreds of thousands of euro to individuals every year, are totally funded by the State. These are the protected species in the zoo that is modern Ireland.
But for those who actually merit inclusion on the endangered species list, there is no protection at all. And unless Fianna Fail embrace their cause, there will be nobody to speak for them.