O Cuiv lets cat out of bag by revealing €4.3bn cuts target

Minister Eamon O Cuiv, speaking after meeting representatives of 29 voluntary and community groups at a pre-Budget forum at St Andrew's Resource Centre in Dublin yesterday

Fiach Kelly and Fionnan Sheahan

A CABINET minister blundered into controversy yesterday by inadvertently signalling that the Government is preparing to cut €4.3bn in this December's draconian Budget.

Social Welfare Minister Eamon O Cuiv's gaffe came as the Green Party's plans for urgent cross-party talks on the Budget were effectively trashed by Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

In a desperate attempt to keep his flagging initiative alive, Environment Minister John Gormley will continue to contact other party leaders over the course of the weekend.

But Mr Cowen left his coalition partners floundering by giving a cool reception to their idea of talks on the four-year 'super Budget'.

Giving a less than enthusiastic reception to the plan, he said the process had to be taken step by step and that the opposition could come forward with budgetary proposals.

The Taoiseach's comments were a far cry from Mr Gormley's claim that Mr Cowen had bought into the idea. Still, the Greens attempted to put on a positive spin.

"We are happy the Taoiseach has endorsed this initiative. It will proceed," Mr Gormley's spokesman said.

Fine Gael and Labour both called for a General Election rather than cross-party talks, but were careful not to rule out taking part. Enda Kenny said his party would play its part fully and constructively in the interests of the country.

"I think John (Gormley) seems to have taken an individual initiative here," he told the Irish Independent. "If I'm to get a letter from the Taoiseach saying this is now a government initiative, obviously Fine Gael will respond to that because we are acutely aware of just how urgent this is."


Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said his party would talk to anybody in the national interest, but that the Greens' plan was an attempt to keep Fianna Fail in power.

But Finance Minister Brian Lenihan last night offered a lifeline to the Greens' plan by advocating a "common analysis" of the economic problem.

Speaking in New York, Mr Lenihan said there was agreement among the main political parties on the need to reduce the deficit within the necessary timeframe, and the opposition parties needed to be provided with full information.

He also expressed the view that the Government and opposition could attempt to arrive at a "common analysis".

Mr Lenihan's views were similar to those of the Taoiseach, though the Finance Minister was significantly more upbeat about the notion of consulting with the opposition.

Mr Lenihan's response to the Green Party initiative on a Budget consensus came as Mr O Cuiv appeared to let the cat out of the bag on the extent of the cuts required in December's Budget. He blurted out the €4.3bn figure -- then tried to recover ground amid denials from the Coalition that the budgetary target was now set this high above the original €3bn.


The minister said the Government was looking to achieve "4.3" -- without saying the word "billion" -- in December's Budget, before claiming that he had meant to say something else.

The Finance Minister has signalled in the past month that the cuts in spending and increases in taxes will be well above the €3bn that had previously been announced. He said €3bn was the minimum.

After saying the Budget would "achieve the 4.3", Mr O Cuiv claimed that he had made a mistake and meant to say that the target was to reduce the deficit by 3pc.

The is the latest in a series of blunders by Mr O Cuiv since he took over at social welfare.

The Government is expected to set out the new target for Budget 2011 next month, when it publishes its four-year plan.

The Department of Finance denied any suggestion the new target was €4.3bn. "The €3bn is the minimum and that is the position," a spokesperson said.

Mr O Cuiv said the Dail was the forum to reach political consensus over how to bring the deficit down to 3pc by 2014, as required by the EU.

"The Budget is in December, so we will have a month of an opportunity, once we get the data to discuss how we will achieve the 4.3 -- eh, sorry, the 3pc of GDP target -- that we need to achieve."

Mr O Cuiv, who then switched the interview to Irish, said he didn't mean to use the 4.3 figure and claimed that he made a mistake.

His spokeswoman said the 4.3 figure was of "no consequence".

But the incident is reminiscent of Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith inadvertently revealing the full extent of cuts in the emergency Budget 18 months ago. After the minister had blurted out the figure -- which turned out to be accurate -- the Government also sought to downplay its significance.