Thursday 22 February 2018

'Housing will be issue that sparks election - they are not on top of it' - Fleming

But PAC chairman Fleming says FF won't pull plug on Government, writes Cormac McQuinn

Deputy Sean Fleming: ‘Issues may come and go, but housing is the one that Government won’t be able to get under control.’ Photo: Tom Burke
Deputy Sean Fleming: ‘Issues may come and go, but housing is the one that Government won’t be able to get under control.’ Photo: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The housing crisis, not water or pay-by-weight bin charges, is the issue most likely to trip up the Government and spark an election, Seán Fleming predicts.

"Normally it's a little thing we don't envisage," the senior Fianna Fáil TD, and chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said.

"But the one thing I don't see the Government getting on top of, despite all the effort they're making, is the housing crisis.

"If you were to ask me 12 months after they take office will there still be homeless people, the answer, unfortunately, is there will be a lot of homeless people and that's not acceptable.

"The other issues may come and go but that's a big issue and despite all the talk and all the plans, they aren't getting on top of it," he said.

That's not to say he thinks Fianna Fáil will be pulling the plug on facilitating the minority Government.

Mr Fleming insisted it won't, even if the polls are looking good for Micheál Martin's party.

He pointed out that the confidence and supply agreement lasts for three Budgets and added: "The only instability here is within the Government."

But he wasn't happy with how legislation on rent caps was pushed through by the Fine Gael-led administration at the end of last year.

He argued that it was "absolutely reminiscent of how they set up Irish Water - Christmas week, rail-roading something through with not enough time."

In the end, Fianna Fáil accepted a commitment from Housing Minister Simon Coveney that rent pressure zones (RPZ) where the caps will apply - originally planned for just Dublin and Cork - will also be considered for other cities and commuter counties.

Mr Fleming would like to see two towns in his own Laois constituency - Portlaoise and Portarlington - where he said rents have gone up by 60pc, examined for inclusion in the scheme.

As well as considering the needs of his local area, which still dominates his workload, Mr Fleming has been devoting up to 20 hours a week to the PAC's probe of Project Eagle, the controversial sale of Nama's Northern Ireland loan book.

He is enjoying his role as chairman of the Dáil's most high-profile committee but conceded that the examination of such a complex issue is not "tabloid politics".

But he says it's important because Nama was established to take over more than €70bn in bank loans during the economic crisis that "cost every household in Ireland dearly".

"People need to know that this organisation was well managed on behalf of the State," he said.

TDs are examining Project Eagle after the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) found that a probable loss of £190m (€223m) was incurred in the sale. Nama has strongly rejected this finding.

Mr Fleming said it's not the committee's function "to try to be a referee" between the two State bodies that have had a public difference of opinion.

There have been media reports of division among PAC members during the process of producing its own report. Mr Fleming said he hopes the PAC can produce an agreed report by the end of the month and it will be the "definitive" statement on any losses from Project Eagle.

An accountant by trade, his former profession means he is well suited to the numbers-heavy role on the PAC.

He also said this is how he approaches the issue of whether or not people who paid water charges should be given refunds.

Read more: Dismay as Nama apartment block - which could house up to 200 people - remains vacant

He is concerned at the potential cost of pursuing households that haven't paid, saying solicitors' letters and court dates could lead to "wasting" taxpayers funds and "still not collecting the money".

He said "the figures need to be run" but added: "It could be quicker, neater and simpler just to send the money back."

Mr Fleming believes Fianna Fáil is being "constructive" in the context of the current Dáil set-up but accuses others in the opposition of "opposing everything for the sake of opposing it."

He also said "we're not seeing much from the Government" saying they're "hanging back a bit too much" because of the Dáil numbers.

Unsurprisingly, he thinks Fianna Fáil will be the biggest party after the next election, whenever that may be, and that Mr Martin will be taoiseach. He said the party needs to add at least 10 seats to the 44 they currently have. He would also like to see more women elected both within Fianna Fáil - which currently has just six female TDs - and in the Dáil more generally. "Politics needs more women...too many men with their high testosterone is not the way to run a country," he said.

His party turned down Taoiseach Enda Kenny's offer of a grand coalition last year and doesn't see it happening next time. "I'd be concerned it would lead to too big a majority if the two parties came together. Big majorities lead to bad government."

Irish Independent

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