Parties briefed ahead of quest for historic Budget accord
OPPOSITION politicians will today get confidential economic information as the push for a historic cross-party agreement on the four-year super-Budget gets under way.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen is expected to sit down to talks by the end of this week with Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore and Green Party leader John Gormley.
Mr Cowen wants all four main parties to agree on what tax hikes and spending cuts will be needed, rather than just broad targets.
But there are still substantial differences between the parties on policy and what they expect to get out of the discussions.
Fine Gael says it won't be bound to specific details even if it does agree the plan is necessary to reduce the deficit by 2014.
The Green Party is pushing for an independent chairman to be brought in so all parties are on an equal footing and also wants separate meetings on job creation. However, Mr Cowen is resisting this move and intends to chair the talks himself and neither Fine Gael nor Labour are pushing for an independent chairman.
Briefings for the opposition parties on the economy by the Department of Finance will begin this morning with Labour's Joan Burton and Fine Gael's Michael Noonan.
The parties are expecting to get precise projections on economic growth and the cost of servicing the national debt.
"I am happy we will get comprehensive information," Ms Burton said.
Fine Gael is pushing for a package of measures that will equate to €3 in cuts for every €1 in extra taxes. But this is at odds with Labour's refusal to go into major public service cuts and their insistence that low- and middle-income earners should not be hit.
Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens all admit social welfare cuts are on the table -- an area Labour is ruling out.
Mr Cowen said agreeing to targets was not necessarily the same as saying what specific actions would be taken.
He said he was pleased that the main opposition parties said they accepted the core target to reduce the deficit to 3pc by 2014, as agreed by the Government with the EU.
"It would be substantially helpful to Ireland's position if we were to show the international community that there is a unity of purpose to go from words to actions," he said.
Mr Cowen committed to approaching further discussions "with good faith" and a hope the parties will collectively be able to "show the public a spirit of responsible cooperation".
Fine Gael energy and communications spokesman Leo Varadkar said his party favoured a plan to reduce the deficit that was three parts spending cuts and one part tax increases.
He said Fine Gael would support the aim of the Government's four-year economic plan, but would not be bound by any specific details in it.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan said yesterday he would prefer to see an outside chairman for the talks and wanted to see other aspects of economic policy also dealt with.
But government sources said Mr Cowen was expected to chair the talks. "The overall personal responsibility is with the Taoiseach," one said.
In a separate development, Mr Cowen and Mr Kenny are also expected to meet to discuss ways to improve the country's international reputation in the wake of the damage done by the banking scandals.
Mr Kenny is a vice-president of the European Peoples' Party, the largest political grouping in the EU.