Sunday 25 February 2018

John Drennan: FG clearly promotes election over the economy

The revived interest in FF's sins reveals the Coalition's strategy in the run-up to 2016.

BLAME GAME: Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan after the Budget at Government Buildings last week. Both ministers took the opportunity earlier in the Dail to bring up the sins of Fianna Fail in
BLAME GAME: Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan after the Budget at Government Buildings last week. Both ministers took the opportunity earlier in the Dail to bring up the sins of Fianna Fail in "driving the economy into the ground"
John Drennan

John Drennan

In the aftermath of Budget 2014, there was some surprise over how swiftly a great silence descended on the government parties. We should not be too puzzled by the status of the Invisible Budget 2014 as a one-day non-wonder, for in the wake of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger all budgets have resembled large unexploded landmines.

So if, as appears to be the case with this one, the landmine doesn't explode, no one is going to behave like Fr Liam Deliverance in Fr Ted and start kicking the thing whilst complaining about the "rotten, rotten workmanship".

Amid the debate over whether Noonan's Invisible Budget has condemned us to an age of eternal austerity or whether little dollops of horse manure had been poured over the frost-bitten green shoots of our domestic economy, the already invisible construct can be summarised in a sentence.

Budget 2014 is Noonan's bluff, whereby the Finance Minister has taken a calculated political gamble to ease off on austerity in the prayerful hope that growth may yet come along to save the day.

Noonan, of course, is not the first minister to hope, when it comes to our Via Dolorosa, that we have "turned the corner", but he will certainly hope he is the last.

Before we become too critical of finance ministers having a bet on the future of the economy, it should be noted one of the great errors surrounding budgets is that they are often analysed as being purely economic events.

However, if budgets were just about economics, then there would be no need for politicians or Budget Day or such inconveniences as votes and debates. Some might not mourn such a development where all that messy stuff would be replaced by a press release from a group of anonymous economists in the Department of Finance.

But outside of noting the track record of most economists suggests we might be better off sticking with the politicians, last week's Budget may have confirmed the usefulness of a political eye in framing budgetary politics.

Pure economics might have said the Government should have followed the advice of the Fiscal Council and the ESRI and gone for the €3.1bn to kill the issue of austerity budgets forever.

That may even have been the position of the Finance Minister who would prefer to have two pre-election non-austerity budgets in the hand rather than taking the current rather more risky stance.

But whilst the Finance Minister may be a natural conservative, on this occasion his well-attuned political ear realised, to borrow a phrase, that we had reached "the limits of austerity".

The resulting punt may have contained more ropey figures than a Fine Gael Seanad campaign but whilst Noonan is gambling, it is at least the sort of informed bet where the punter has paid off a few stableboys before plunging into the market.

Of course, the Invisible Budget was political in far more matters than ignoring

the advice of our ever multiplying race of economists. Instead, the silence of the Sabine geese of the Labour backbenchers indicated this was an intensely political budget on two other key fronts.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore made it very clear from a long way out that he wanted the cuts and taxation wing of the budget to be €2.5bn. Noonan may initially have grizzled and groused but in the end, the Tanaiste and Labour's political need was greater than the personal preferences of the Finance Minister.

Inevitably, it means the decision to give Gilmore his €2.5bn figure was about more than merely saving Private Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Coalition conscripts.

Fine Gael is all too aware that Labour's accelerating status as the sick man of the Coalition meant the political imperative was to ensure the Invisible Budget had to appear to do what it says on the Labour tin. And if that meant James Reilly had to be left swinging in the wind with the mark of the beast of €666m of future cuts, then so be it.

Our Invisible "move along there, nothing to see here" Budget was also informed by one other political imperative. Like those bets on the length of the best man's speech at a wedding, much of the interest in the Budget was centred on the length of time that would pass before the finance minister set his teeth into the still lightly protected FF calf.

As it happens, we did not even get past the first paragraph, while Brendan Howlin lasted for less than a minute before FF was, correctly, accused of having driven "the economy into the ground and led us beholden, like the famine victims of old, to seek relief outside of this country''.

Intriguingly, Noonan and Howlin's critiques were just the latest example of the recent ratcheting up of attacks on Fianna Fail. It was not by accident either for the defining feature of FG's recent national conference was the all-consuming obsession with the forthcoming European and council elections.

It would be fair to say these are on the minds of all, but the focus on a set of elections that are a mere seven months away was far sharper within the ranks of Fine Gael than its political rivals who are appreciating their importance in theory rather than practice.

Last week's Invisible Budget was, therefore, as much about the council and European elections as Ireland's long-term fiscal prospects.

Outside of ensuring that the Budget would be as inoffensive as possible to all groups in society, the revived interest of the Government in FF's sins provided us with clear signposts to the Government's strategic plan in the run-up to election 2016.

Outside of dragging up the spooks and spectres of Fianna Fail's admittedly dubious past to frighten the electorate back to the Fine Gael and Labour nurse, our Invisible Budget suggests this administration intends to do nothing at all dangerous or radical lest the voters be scared off.

This, however, may have one unwanted political side-effect. Given its tribal affinity, one of the great concerns faced by Fine Gael in the wake of its election victory was whether it would acquire the Fianna Fail vice of electoralism.

Three times – under 'honest' Jack in 1977, the ruinous early Haughey years and then under Bertie – Fianna Fail's fatal flaw of prioritising its electoral needs over the good of the country laid waste to the prospects of three separate generations of citizens.

It is an understandable sentiment that after so many years of electoral famine, Fine Gael and Labour are anxious to ensure that they do not slip into their old amateur ways and let those FF working-class toughs bully them out of the political pavilion again.

The party Enda built can in no way be accused of such laxity for the fascination of the Fine Gael Scientologists with the process of political success, as distinct from what you actually do with that success, is almost beginning to rival that of its putative future Sinn Fein partners.

It would be a pity though if one side-effect of Fine Gael (and Labour too, we mustn't forget Gilmore) becoming as professional as Fianna Fail in electoral terms would be that they would become equally amoral in their running of the country.

Last week's Invisible Budget may have been harmless, but, in a country still crying out for reform, this meant it was all the more cynical.

Ironically, the political cynicism that coloured this utterly political Budget may do the Coalition more harm than good. The blueshirts may not like it, but, historically, the way Paddy the Voter likes it is that Fianna Fail is chosen for partying and the schoolmarms of Fine Gael and their Labour appendages are chosen for those short periods where Paddy the Voter wants the place cleaned up.

However, if FG continues its current evolutionary process into becoming FF; how are the citizens to choose between one and the other?

Or to put it another way, why on earth would they even bother to try?

The new 'tough lads' who run the Fine Gael of 'King Enda' might not be too worried about the alienation of the electorate, seeing as those are the ones that don't vote. But the Seanad campaign should remind them that bad things can happen to those focus group addicts who become too smart for their own good.

Sunday Independent

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