Saturday 19 October 2019

Coalition to court voters as election day looms large

Mr Howlin and his officials are now assessing the long list of priorities and negotiating with Government departments
Mr Howlin and his officials are now assessing the long list of priorities and negotiating with Government departments

Miriam Donohoe

The courting of the electorate in advance of the general election begins in earnest in September, with the publication of the Government's much-anticipated Capital Plan.

Senior government figures believe the plan, which will be presented as a multi-billion euro war chest, provides a crucial opportunity to get the electorate back on message.

In typical Fine Gael/Labour fashion, the parties have managed to allow further controversies to unfold in the normally quiet summer season.

Surprise talk of Enda Kenny's leadership and a cooling of relations between Joan Burton and deputy leader Alan Kelly have painted a picture of a coalition still off the boil.

Next month's capital plan, which will deliver goodies in areas of education, housing justice and health, will be followed by the final Budget ahead of the election.

The Capital Plan is the pot from the Exchequer earmarked for major infrastructural projects.

Capital expenditure has been heavily reduced during the recession and the new plan gives the Government the perfect pre-election opportunity to put significant money into developments.

With so much at stake for both parties, it's no surprise the tussling between ministers for a slice of the cake has stepped up a gear this week.

The greatest level of noise is coming from Fine Gael - and particularly the departments of Justice and Transport.

Frances Fitzgerald is on course to be handed a large cheque to introduce a major overhaul of the Garda IT system, a move recommended by the Garda Inspectorate report.

Paschal Donohoe, too, has made it clear to Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin that he needs €300m each year for transport projects , or else they could fall into a state of disrepair.

Central to the Fine Gael concern is spreading the plan into rural Ireland, as it moves to woo voters outside of Dublin ahead of the election.

The party wants the spoils spread through the regions, the battleground on which Fine Gael hopes to win enough support to lead a government after the election.

Investment in schools around the country and in local flood-relief schemes will be key here, with 33 areas around Ireland at serious risk of flooding to be targeted.

Labour ministers are also keen to get their hands on the goodies, rather than let Fine Gael hog the limelight - as happened with the publication of the Spring Economic Statement. Although pitched as a Coalition document, many in Labour felt it was 'Blueshirt-led'.

For Joan Burton, it will be key that the party takes as much ownership as possible, given its dismal standing in the polls. The Capital Plan provides a chance for Labour to take a share on the spoils ahead of election day.

The plan was due to be published in June but was hit by delays.

Part of this was as a result of the wrangling behind the scenes in Government Buildings.

Mr Howlin and his officials are now assessing the long list of priorities and negotiating with Government departments.

In the end, the plan will be signed off by the powerful Government cabal known as the Economic Management Council (EMC).

Once this agreement is reached, the Government will step up its election campaign.

October's Budget will quickly roll in and, if we believe what we are told, the measures will put money back in people's pockets after five years of austerity.

This gives the Government parties a nice run into the end of the year. But, as we have learned already, the Coalition has mastered turning good news stories into political sagas.

Irish Independent

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