Friday 30 September 2016

Micheál Martin knows well that cash up front trumps any talk about 'fairness'

Published 27/10/2015 | 02:30

Deputy Michael Martin pictured at Leinster House
Deputy Michael Martin pictured at Leinster House

Micheál Martin is undoubtedly well acquainted with the sad fate of Michael Noonan as the challenging opposition leader in the 2002 General Election.

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At the time, Fine Gael were trying to tell voters the country was woefully mismanaged and the lamentable state of the health services showed we had no quality of life. Mr Noonan's slogan of 'Vision With Purpose' did not resonate with anyone as he presided over the biggest calamity to befall his party since 1948, losing 23 TDs.

Mr Noonan could tell Micheál Martin that arguments about nebulous concepts like quality of life and fairness are slow to convince voters. Cash in the pocket works much better.

Then again, the Fianna Fáil leader already knows this as he was a key lieutenant to then-Teflon Bertie Ahern in the second of three election wins in a row on May 17, 2002.

The soaraway state of the Irish economy at the time far outstripped the current state of play - but there are similarities between then and now.

The economy had out-performed its European neighbours with the highest levels of growth; unemployment had declined dramatically; mass emigration was reversed; and the national debt declined to manageable proportions.

The big advantage Fianna Fáil and their Progressive Democrat partners had was delivery of huge tax cuts, which put money into people's pockets. By 2002, the standard rate of tax was cut from 26pc to 20pc and the top rate had gone from 48pc to 42pc.

Bertie Ahern & Co were offering a huge spending spree on roads, other public transport and schools. Mr Martin himself, as Health Minister, was presiding over a pledge of huge health services investment and the ending of hospital waiting lists within two years.

Of course, Mr Martin did not abolish waiting lists - but that is not my point. The reality is that Mr Noonan found out in very graphic terms that "Irish people do not vote on health."

True, Mr Noonan had ultimately made the campaign's biggest promises on tax cuts, with €2bn in concessions, including a scheme to compensate taxi drivers over de-regulation and Eircom shareholders who lost money in the flotation.

But the punters thought this belated intervention could not compete with money already in the pocket.

Now, facing next spring's election, the shoe is on the other foot. Fianna Fáil has struggled to find an economic message of relevance to prospective voters. All signs are that they will major on quality of life, improved service and "fairness".

They may well find this a very hard row to hoe.

Irish people have lacked cash since 2008 and they want "payback". So, fairness - even if we could agree a definition - just might not do it for people come election time.

Mr Martin's other difficulty, his inability to bring his colleagues to face the abortion issue, may further blunt his chances. Replacing the Eighth Amendment will loom large after the next election.

At time of writing, his chances of becoming Taoiseach appear a long shot, but we live in volatile times and it cannot be ruled out.

Irish Independent

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