'The Troika were like the Holy Ghost'
The main threat to our recovery is the legacy of the bank debt, Joan Burton tells political editor John Drennan
SOCIAL Protection Minister Joan Burton may, in the eyes of the Gilmore wing of Labour at least, be one of the more turbulent princesses within the Cabinet.
During the political year there were claims of a war between herself and Gilmore. The tangled relationship was not helped by revelations that Ms Burton had stored the infamous 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters in her shed during Labour's campaign.
Burton also came in for complaints within Fine Gael about how she had shafted James Reilly in the Budget, and the pace at which real reform was being delivered.
However, at Christmas, the minister was in a charitable frame of mind. She ceded that her role in resolving the unemployment crisis would be key to the recovery of both the country and Labour.
John Drennan: Do you think yourself and President Michael D Higgins have won the war on austerity?
Joan Burton: I would not refer to it as a war. What I would hope is that there is the recognition of the virtues of a careful reflationary policy in Ireland and across Europe if Ms Merkel is so minded with her coalition partners. There is a small sustained uplift. I recognise many people do not see a rising upland, but if we continue to have a modest wind at our back recovery can be energising for everyone.
JD: So there will be no return to Bertie-economics?
JB: I would hope not. What we have to return to is a growing sustainable modest prosperity that will create a convincing picture of an Ireland worth investing in. The biggest threat to our recovery is the legacy of the bank debt. Mario Draghi, in being prepared to defend the euro, is a very important ally. Next year much of the discourse in Europe will centre on banks. You want working banks that concentrate on plain vanilla banking. Mr Draghi fully understands the importance of creating that system.
JD: Now that the Troika has gone, have we reached the end of cutbacks?
JB: The Troika were a bit like the Holy Ghost; a constant lurking presence. For the upper echelons of the civil service, the Troika became a substitute for the necessary thinking and debate about how we need to reform as a society. When it comes to child benefit and pensions, I have prioritised the protection of pensioners' core earnings, child benefit is equally important to middle and lower income families; it is a critical subsidy for work.
JD: So mothers need not worry about their child benefit in the next Budget?
JB: Well, a critical factor in unemployment is that every 10,000 fall where people return to the workforce saves the State €95m. In 2014 the welfare budget will fall well below €20bn, and €7bn of that is for pensioners; the jobseekers' bill is falling exponentially. So that eases pressures.
JD: Speaking of pressures, how are relations between yourself and Eamon Gilmore?
JB: Eamon and I shall be at a Labour party tonight wishing each other the best, but we might take a little break from each other then.
JD: It is said that relations are not too warm between the Departments of Health and Social Protection.
JB: Recently we were able to contribute €47m of savings to the Department of Health. When added to savings which we contributed before the Budget, the total is €200m. When it came to the contribution of €47m the Taoiseach and my Cabinet colleagues thanked me profusely for the help Social Welfare had provided to sorting out the Health budget. But I also want the reforms to begin to succeed there.
JD: What reforms have been achieved in areas?
JB: We have 43 Intreo offices completed;, they are playing a key role in transforming welfare away from the old hatch system. Instead as an unemployed person there are IT facilities, you are treated with courtesy, welfare is now a public employment service where the first question is: what can we do to help you get back to work? We will have 60 offices by 2014 and we will also have half a million public services cards rolled out -- and that photo recognition technology will reduce fraud.
JD: What developments are there in areas such as the youth guarantee?
JB: The EU Youth Guarantee implementation plan will be finalised and forwarded to the European Commission and published in January. In all, estimated expenditure on these programmes for young people is in excess of €300m in 2014. I have also created three pathways to work: over 24,000 people have engaged with JobBridge; 14,000 with Tus; and there has been a take-up of 1,000 in Jobsplus.
JD: In a recent Irish Times poll zero per cent of the public credited Labour with the exit of the bailout; is it a case that Labour, to secure political traction, must be seen to resolve the unemployment crisis?
JB: People connect Labour with creating employment. We face a real challenge. The more people who secure employment, the better the effects are on lifting national morale.
We have invested hugely in Family Income Supplement, up to €280m; it is a vital tool in keeping people in the minimum wage at work.