Saturday 25 November 2017

Fury as four-man cabal keeps other ministers in the dark on Budget


Cabinet ministers are furious that they are being "kept in the dark" about key spending cuts and tax increases by the four-man Economic Management Council (EMC) just two weeks to before the Budget, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The EMC, which comprises Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, have taken "near total control" of the Budget.

With just 16 days to go to the Budget on December 5, which will see a further €3.5bn in savings, deep "paranoia" over leaks has gripped Mr Noonan and Mr Howlin in particular, who are refusing to countenance a repeat of the chaos of Budget 2012.

"Last year, we made a host of mistakes and there was unjustifiable concern caused by some ministers. We are not having a repeat of that. Some people's noses are out of joint, so what. This Budget is too delicate," said a senior government figure.

This year, no additional cabinet meetings dealing specifically with the Budget have taken place, as has been normal practice in previous years.

Instead, contentious matters are being "hammered out" primarily at the EMC, which meets normally every Wednesday afternoon in the Department of An Taoiseach, it has been confirmed.

It has also emerged that Mr Howlin and Mr Noonan have deliberately kept some detail back from their leaders in order to contain details of the Government's second austerity Budget.

But several other ministers, particularly Social Protection Minister Joan Burton and Health Minister James Reilly are said to be the most displeased at the arrangement.

Ministers are said to be annoyed that rather than "full and open discussion", decisions are coming out of the EMC to Cabinet as "faits accompli", which they say make them more difficult to oppose.

"There is a feeling among some of the other ministers that they and their powers are being usurped by this four-man cabal, particularly those in the big spending departments where the cuts primarily have to come from," one senior government figure said.

Relations between Mr Howlin and Mr Reilly, while never very good, are now said to be at an "all-time low", particularly in light of the ongoing budget overruns in the health sector, which are set to top €400m at year's end.

In response to the expressions of anger from some ministers, a spokeswoman for the Taoiseach told the Sunday Independent: "It is good practice – and a lesson from mistakes made by the previous Government – to have a forum where relevant ministers, officials and advisers can consider the economic strategy based on the best advice available."

According to senior Labour party sources, an additional cabinet meeting could be possible some time later this week or early next week, but there is an acceptance and willingness at the height of government for the power to rest primarily within the EMC.

The growing criticism of the EMC has not been limited to within government, with respected financial commentator Eddie Hobbs describing them as the "inner cabinet which brings the intellectual firepower of three secondary-school teachers and a trade unionist to bear on Ireland's crisis."

In the run-up to last year's Budget, promises made in relation to disadvantaged schools by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to Fine Gael backbenchers were later overturned by the EMC.

Admitting he was overturned, Mr Quinn said: "The EMC made final decisions, which was their remit. We always knew they would be overriding as they have the full picture.

"I only had the picture of my Budget proposals."

Sunday Independent

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