Thursday 18 January 2018

Key issues the next Government has already put on back burner

Fine Gael and Labour's coalition deal runs to 60 pages, but the Programme for Government is missing a lot of detail. Deputy Political Editor Michael Brennan seeks answers to the 10 hot questions not answered in the new deal

What exactly is the division between spending cuts and tax hikes?

There are no figures in the Programme for Government to show what will happen here. Both parties have said they are prepared to stick to the targets in the National Recovery Plan for next year -- which requires €2.1bn in spending cuts and €1.5bn in taxation increases.

That's a total of €3.6bn -- but Fine Gael and Labour are only giving the figure of €3bn. Labour TD Brendan Howlin admitted yesterday that the current EU-IMF deal requires the €3.6bn figure to be met -- but said the parties hope to renegotiate this.

Will there really be no cuts to social welfare rates?

There is a clear pledge in the programme that "social welfare rates will be maintained".

But there will also be a Tax and Social Welfare Commission, which will look at "the elimination of disincentives to employment".

That does leave the door open for reductions in some welfare rates, on the grounds they are needed to increase the attractiveness of going back to work. Fine Gael's Phil Hogan specifically referred to this commission yesterday when asked if there would be social welfare cuts.

What will happen to our banking system?

Fine Gael had promised during the election campaign to sell AIB to a foreign company, to restore Bank of Ireland and to make EBS into a "third force" in Irish banking.

But these concrete promises have not made it into the small print of the programme. Instead there is simply a commitment to a "smaller banking system" and to dispose of public stakes in the banks as soon as possible.

There is also a promise to wean the Irish banks off emergency funding from the European Central Bank by getting "medium-term affordable financing" -- but no detail on how to get the €50bn needed to do so. Again, Fine Gael talked during the election campaign about using the $50bn (€36bn) in US assets held by Irish banks to get funding from the US Federal Reserve. So the jury is still out on what exactly will be done here.

What's going to happen to FAS?

The new Government is planning to shut down FAS and replace it with a new "National Employment and Entitlements Service". The aim is to have a "one-stop shop" which pays people their unemployment benefit and also helps them to find jobs -- these two tasks are currently carried out separately by the Department of Social Protection and FAS. But it is going to be a complex process, given that FAS has 2,000 employees.

How many TDs will be cut?

Fine Gael had included the pledge to cut the number of TDs by 20 in their "Five Point Plan". But there is no number mentioned in the programme, which just states that a reduction will be made after the results of the 2011 Census are published.

What will happen to NAMA?

Fine Gael and Labour appear to accept they are stuck with NAMA -- Michael Noonan said during the campaign that halting it would be "like trying to unscramble an egg". But they have made a commitment to have the "highest standards of transparency" about its operations -- which presumably will mean lifting the veil of secrecy over its transactions.

How are they going to revise the joint labour agreement pay scales given Labour's connections to the trade unions?

Wages in sectors such as the hotel, restaurant and building trades are still decided by joint labour committees. The programme says that "reform options will examine the rates of pay for atypical hours". This is a reference to complaints from restaurant and hotel owners that they have to pay double time or time-and-a-third to staff for Sunday work. This will be another tricky issue for the coalition.

Where will the new children's hospital be built?

There is a clear commitment in the programme to build it -- but it does not say where. Fine Gael's health spokesman Dr James Reilly has been sceptical about the current €650m plan to build it on the Mater Hospital site -- a location which is in the middle of Dublin's busy city centre. This will be a big decision for the new Government, because millions of euro have already been spent on the existing plan.

What happened to Fine Gael's promise to reverse the ban on stag hunting?

Fine Gael voted against the Green Party-inspired ban on stag hunting -- and included a clear promise in its election manifesto to reverse it. But there is no mention in the programme. Labour's Brendan Howlin said his party had not committed to getting rid of the ban. The only group affected is the Ward Union Hunt in Meath -- which has been legally carrying out hunts since the ban by releasing and recapturing a stag -- and then getting horses and hounds to follow the scent. The tricky issue will land in the Environment Minister's lap.

What will happen to the North East Pylon Project?

There is a commitment in the programme to appoint an "independent international expert commission" to decide in six months whether the Meath-Tyrone power line should be put underground rather than on 44-metre-high pylons.

The project has already been delayed because Eirgrid had to withdraw the planning application due to a consultant's blunder. The commitment to a six-month review will satisfy opponents of the project, but Eirgid says it is a vital piece of national infrastructure.

Irish Independent

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