Sunday 21 December 2014

Politics resumes with an eye on money in your pocket and general election 2016

Published 01/09/2014 | 02:30

Normal political working begins to kick in from this week onwards
Normal political working begins to kick in from this week onwards

In many houses a teenage son or daughter uses as much water in the shower as would irrigate a small African nation. It is something the family men and women in Cabinet know only too well - and it will be a big factor in a general election, which is now at most 18 months away.

Normal political working begins to kick in from this week onwards. On Wednesday afternoon the Cabinet will hold their first weekly meeting since July. Ministers will then make their first collective efforts to grapple with Budget 2015, which will be unveiled just six weeks from tomorrow, on October 14.

Also this week the various political party officials will be busy putting the final touches to those back-to-Dail "party think-ins" in various nice places around the country. The Fine Gael TDs and Senators decamp to Fota Island, overlooking Cork Harbour, on Thursday and Friday of next week. On those same days the Sinn Fein Oireachtas members will gather in Termonfeckin, just north of Drogheda, Co Louth.

Fianna Fail's parliamentary team will be in Roscommon town this day fortnight for two days, while Labour will head to Wexford town at the same time. Then, flourish of cornets, the Dail and Seanad will sit again on September 17.

From then on, the Irish political world will be "at war", as absolutely every word uttered by the main players will be weighed in terms of an impending general election. It will be a long and grinding lead-in to the most intriguing contest since 1947, as the outcome of election 2016 is, at this distance, bordering on the impossible to call. But that is for another day.

The blissful quiet of an often sunny summer was more recently disrupted by a revival of the abortion controversy. Doubtless, its echoes will be heard again in the Dail and Seanad from the middle of this month onwards. However, there is a keen sense across the main parties that this issue will be shelved until after the next general election.

From now on everything is going to be about the economy - or, more correctly, money, or the lack of it, in the voters' pockets. Bar the abortion issue, the quiet of late July and August was only punctured by general political comments from various government figures about potential tax cuts.

Let's avoid the judgments offered by some of the more po-faced political commentators here. The simple reality is that the various government people who did venture statements about tax cuts were merely responding to journalists' questions.

Most recently we had the new junior finance minister, Simon Harris of Fine Gael, speaking of the need to cut taxes. And almost at the same time, we heard the new super junior minister for jobs, Ged Nash of Labour, talking of the need for wage increases.

The divergence, if not outright conflict, in these two junior ministers' comments reminds us of the built-in potential for clashes between Fine Gael and Labour. The run in to last year's Budget saw clashes between the then Health Minister James Reilly and the then Social Protection Minister Joan Burton on which department should take the brunt of the cutbacks. Both parties know a repeat must be avoided.

A flavour of recent ministerial tax-and-spend pronouncements is as follows: cuts to the higher and lower income tax rates; cuts to the dreadfully iniquitous Universal Social Charge; changing the tax bands; and restoring the various pay cuts inflicted upon public service workers since 2008. On the spending side of the equation there was talk of the need to spend more on education, on health, and generally hiring more public servants across the services, ending the embargo in place since March 2009.

For people of a certain age it was all reminiscent of the heady political days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with pledges to cut taxes and improve services all at the same time. There was that sinking feeling that we were back in political "La-La Land" in a sort of semi-consciousness.

But a merciful reality dawned towards the close of last week, as the better class of number crunchers managed to make their voices heard. There were two particularly striking studies of the issue of income tax and the potential for cuts done for the Irish Independent, one by Ernst & Young and the other by Chartered Accountants Ireland.

In essence, their findings suggested that many workers will do well to be €5 per week better off after the October 14 Budget. For some people an extra fiver is to be scoffed at. For others it could be the difference between eating at the end of the week and going without.

Equally, as we enter our seventh consecutive autumn of austerity and things are finally beginning to look up, we must avoid despondency about our future.

But there is also another upcoming date not listed among those in the political term and cited above. It is October 1 next, when those water charges start to clock up.

First bills will land on January 1, probably the same day any tax cuts we might get would take effect. For many families, especially those with a frequently shower-taking teenager, there will be relief if the tax changes match the new water bills. And in many households that will be more a matter of hope than reality.

John Downing

Irish Independent

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