Fionnan Sheahan

Friday 1 August 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Plenty of scope for an autumn of discontent in coalition ranks

Published 25/07/2012|05:00

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After 16 months, the Coalition is beginning to feel the strain, with a range of issues causing flashpoints.

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Following their final Cabinet meeting yesterday morning before a six-week break , ministers will be able to cool off after tensions simmered over recent weeks.

Putting a brave face on it, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the relationship between the coalition partners was "excellent". Yet he still acknowledged the physical strains on serving in Government during such a difficult period for the country.

"I think they're all tired," he said.

When they return on September 4, ministers will have a heavy workload.

Plenty of items will be on the agenda to further test relations in an Autumn of Discontent, where faultlines will be exposed.

1. Abortion

After muttering in the Fine Gael backbenches, the substantive issue reared up again. The Government is obliged to present an "action plan" to an EU body by late October, following receipt of a report by an expert group in September.

Fine Gael is pro-life and Labour is pro-choice. The parties divide on the necessity to allow abortions if a woman's life is in danger. Fine Gael backbenchers are threatening to vote against the Government it if comes to it.

2. Budget 2013

The low hanging fruit is gone and there's another €3.5bn to be found for next year. It will stretch the limits of the commitments not to increase income tax (Fine Gael) and not to cut basic social welfare rates (Labour). The ban on not floating ideas in advance and discussing Budget preparations ought to be funny as December approaches and minister's get nervous.

3. Croke Park Agreement

When Leo Varadkar speaks to the Fine Gael base calling for increments to be curbed and allowances to be tackled, his musings tend to drive Labour nuts. But the allowances issue will have to be addressed, as will any delays in reforms of work practices.

The Croke Park Agreement is going to be one of the areas worked even harder to extract savings.

Brendan Howlin's approach to implementation has been efficient without necessarily being effective.

4. Property tax

Labour succeeded in advancing Phil Hogan's timeline by a year. But the battle still has to be fought over the method of calculating the value of the property and the rate of tax.

Likewise, on the water charges, which Hogan will be bringing in come 2014. Labour had been reluctant to allow this to happen but will be insisting that the free daily allowance for households is generous.

And they'll also want to ensure it's on a pay-per-use system, through metering wherever possible, to avoid the mistakes of the flat-rate household charge.

5. Right versus Left

Joan Burton wants employers to foot the bill for the first four weeks of workers' sick leave. Richard Bruton has released a broadside on the proposal, arguing it will cost jobs, particularly for small businesses. Burton will likely relent, but may use the capital to get concessions elsewhere. After the bruising experience with the JLCs last summer, where Labour kicked him around, Bruton is on the opposite side of the fence this time. He has pretty solid backing from his party who don't want the perception of adding to the burden for struggling small businesses.

SimilarlY, Labour Junior Minister Roisin Shorthall's plans to curb alcohol consumption and limit advertising and sponsorship fell foul of objections from Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. A prohibition on sports sponsorship was kicked to touch.

6. Social change

The parties haven't exactly seen eye to eye on other social changes and the relationship with the church. Ruairi Quinn's approach towards school patronage doesn't go down well with the conservative wing of Fine Gael. The same can be said about Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's decision to close the Embassy to the Holy See for cost-cutting reasons. Fine Gael TDs want it re-opened before the next general election.

The divide was most clearly viewed with Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore stating he is in favour of gay marriage, while Taoiseach Enda Kenny hid behind the Constitutional Convention.

7. Personality clashes

Dr James Reilly has become the favoured whipping boy of Labour and there isn't a whole lot of faith in his abilities.

Reilly appears to have made little effort to ingratiate himself with Labour, engaging in petty squabbling with junior ministers and treating Eamon Gilmore like a second-class citizen. It's a habit which will come back to haunt him when he needs the Coalition to stand behind his health reform plans.

On the Fine Gael side, Joan Burton's name most frequently pops up on the radar with a sense there's too much talk and not enough action. Her latest wheeze was suggesting high earners have their child benefit taxed and then admitting it can't be done in the Budget.

Irish Independent

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