Friday 15 November 2019

John Downing: There aren't enough mansions in Ireland to fix this Coalition split

'In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." That is the storied quote from Chapter 14, Verse 12, of John's Gospel.

Let's park the four-century-old row over translation about the occurrence of the word 'mansion', and ask a more immediate and impertinent question: how many mansions are there in Ireland?

For weeks now, Fine Gael and Labour have been re-hashing an ongoing version of a row that dates from late February and early March 2011 as they hammered out the joint Programme for Government. In big picture terms, there was a promise that income tax would not increase, and another promise that welfare rates would not be cut.

Both these promises were rather quixotic, bordering on the impossible-to-deliver, and all the more so if you consider the third leg of that government stool: the Croke Park deal promising not to cut public service pay rates or have compulsory job losses. But it was accepted that Fine Gael owned the pledge on taxes and Labour owned the pledge on welfare.

The potted history of this Coalition to date has been about tension over Fine Gael's role as 'defender of the taxpayer' and Labour's as 'defender of the welfare claimant'. With the economy falling to pieces, it was reasonable to assume that one or the other of those promises had to give. This tax-welfare tension intensified in the latter stages of last week and reached a crisis point on Saturday.

Labour wanted vastly more emphasis on taxes, with a 'make-the-rich-pay' look on things by their increase on earners over €100,000 per year. Fine Gael needed to cool that one and cut public spending with a 'value-for-money' gloss on things, which amounted to welfare cuts.

Both sides were playing hardball but were also conscious of the dangers of taking this one to the brink. So, on Saturday, the prospect of a super-home tax on 'mansions' valued over €1m emerged as the fig-leaf compromise for both sides.

Evidence of what this would gross is anecdotal at best. Like so much else related to property tax, this one is shrouded in doubt because of the lack of any real property market right now.

But even with that crisis defused, nobody in any political party is certain how many of the Labour Party backbenchers will refuse to troop through the voting lobby late on Wednesday night and back this most draconian Budget.

There are tough things expected in the details – including measures which will hit pensioners – and, increasingly, Labour people are looking at how they can face voters at local elections, which are just 18 months away once you take the upcoming Christmas holidays out of the mix.

Labour is already down four TDs on the 37 it returned in February 2011, and there is strong speculation that one or two more may peel off this week. The growing Labour-in-exile rump is going to be a problem for Eamon Gilmore.

Add in the tricky problem of Labour doubts about Health Minister James Reilly, and you have a growing "political situation".

Loose Labour lips put Education Minister Ruairi Quinn in a spot of bother yesterday as his attempts to privately placate backbench colleagues were put into the public domain in a way he would never have chosen.

The abortion issue also remains unfinished business, with some Labour politicians less than reassured by noises emanating from the Fine Gael side.

It could be a long haul to Christmas and the holidays could prove very short indeed.

People with even a passing interest in politics, and who assessed the general election results in February 2011, reached a similar conclusion. The incoming Fine Gael-Labour Coalition was the Government, not just for the coming five years, but for, at very least, two terms.

The outcome of events in recent weeks raises serious questions about those assumptions. It is now legitimate to ask whether this Coalition has the necessary cohesion to go the five-year distance to the end of its term in spring 2016.

More immediately, you don't need to mine through the Central Statistics Office data to know there are few mansions in Ireland – though perhaps there are enough to raise sufficient revenue to fund a temporary political Coalition fix. But that is for now – in the medium term this mansion fix appears unlikely to bear the increasing Coalition strains.

Irish Independent

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