Saturday 16 December 2017

Events point to an election – and Paschal being victim of realpolitik

Paschal Donohoe Picture: Collins
Paschal Donohoe Picture: Collins
John Downing

John Downing

We are staying with the assumption that Paschal Donohoe will get Budget No.2 – out of a promised three – over the line today. But considerable doubt has already built around the prospects of a third one ever becoming reality.

The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil confidence and supply deal, underpinning this minority Coalition, arrived at in May 2016, speaks of three budgets. There has been a deal of pulling and dragging over the last few days, and there was much the same last year.

It’s not clear yet how much of the would-be tough negotiations were genuine and how much was for the optics. But, assuming all goes well today, and over the next few days, we are certainly heading into trickier political waters thereafter.

There is no great confidence across any party, or among Independents, at Leinster House that a general election can be avoided in 2018. One of the few thoughts which speaks to an election being averted is the fear of being blamed for causing this creaky hybrid Government’s collapse.

Now that is in the realms of lowest common denominator politics and cannot of itself inspire confidence. Political events can throw up a variety of political alibis for one party or another to argue, more in sorrow than anger, that their best efforts to avoid another election were thwarted after it all. 

Part of the glue which kept things together over the past 20 months was a common view, among all parties and none, that nobody wanted an early election after the inconclusive outcome of the one in February 2016.  All wanted time for their finances to recover, as well as a renewal of energy and morale for themselves and their loyal canvassers.

That went from Solidarity-People Before Profit, through Sinn Féin, and right across Labour, Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The passage of time will, however, have worn down that view and political pragmatism will also have played its part.

True, the opinion polls so far suggest little might change in a general election next year over the stalemate we got 20 months ago. Fine Gael’s change of leader has been beneficial, Leo Varadkar has had a smooth take-off as the new Taoiseach, but it is far from streaking into a clear lead.

That is certainly true when you consider that governing parties usually get a certain opinion poll boost while the Dáil is shut for the summer and the Opposition is not seen to be battering them.  But both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be heartened that their support is growing and each will be preparing to put a strong message about the need for political stability into their election messaging.

The main point about today’s Budget was that there was never big money at stake. One way and another the Finance Minister is expected to have expanded from an expected €300m in spare cash to anything up to €1bn for welfare rises, tax reductions and some increased services spending.

But in the following budgets, for 2019 and 2020, it is already projected that three times this sum will be available each year. That projection prompts a key question which resonates in Leinster House: “Is Fianna Fáil prepared to allow Fine Gael preside over the disbursement of such largesse ahead of a general election which must happen in February 2021 at latest?”

Few find that to be a very likely prospect. Why should Fianna Fáil facilitate its rivals to head into an election campaign after a giveaway budget? This is what mainly feeds widespread speculation around an election sometime in the first half of next year.

It would take a brave person to predict the outcome of such an election. Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael could be in pole position and he could be back with Mr Donohoe in charge of the moneybags to present another host of budgets. Or, we could have another crowd in charge.

That scenario leaves the grim prospect of Mr Donohoe becoming “a one-Budget wonder”. It is not a reflection on his abilities, but more a statement of realpolitik. Whoever coined the adage about politics being “a cruel trade” really had no idea how true it is.

Irish Independent

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