Thursday 14 November 2019

Shane Coleman: FG backbench clamour will add to Kenny problems over Budget cuts

THE mini-rebellion by backbench Fine Gael deputies over the Croke Park deal brings to mind the old adage that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.

If Enda Kenny wants his government to run its full term and ultimately be remembered as a successful Taoiseach, he would be wise to try and avoid the errors made by two ill-fated governments three decades ago.

The administrations were led by Jack Lynch and Garret FitzGerald respectively. Kenny's coalition actually has a fair bit in common with both. Lynch's Fianna Fail government won a thumping 20-seat majority in 1977. On the night of the election count, Lynch surprised many by musing aloud as to whether the majority was too big. His initial unease that maintaining party discipline would be impossible proved uncannily prescient. By December, 1979, after months of open backbench agitation against him, Lynch was effectively forced out.

Three years later, a new Fine Gael-Labour coalition, led by FitzGerald and Dick Spring, was elected with a mandate to sort out the growing economic crisis (sound familiar?). Unemployment was soaring and so was the national debt as successive governments ran up large deficits.

However, despite the need for urgent action, what followed was four years of paralysis. Labour continually vetoed unpalatable decisions required to address the budget deficit. They found an unlikely ally in FitzGerald, who was probably closer ideologically to Labour than Fine Gael.

Instead of cutting spending, the government continually increased taxes; the budgetary deficit wasn't addressed and the economy continued to stagnate. That coalition limped along unhappily until Labour pulled out at the end of 1986.

It's too early to predict the current regime will fail in the same manner as those governments. But there are clear warning signals.

The Coalition's majority is two-and-a-half times Jack Lynch's and already there is plenty of evidence of indiscipline in the government ranks. Labour is already down junior ministers and two backbenchers. Its TDs were always going to be deeply uncomfortable making the tough decisions required of any government at the moment, but the rate of attrition is a concern.

And on the other side of the coin, there seems to be growing frustration on the Fine Gael backbenches at what they see as the Cabinet's meekness -- particulary with the public sector unions. It was obvious long before the publication of the letter from the eight TDs that many Fine Gael deputies were exasperated at the continued payment of increments to higher paid public sector workers, ministers' reluctance to tackle allowances and what deputies saw as exaggerated claims about savings from Croke Park.

There has also been tension in the party over how these genuine concerns on economic issues were being interpreted in some quarters of Fine Gael as a criticism of the leadership. Yesterday's letter from the Croke Park 8 -- and growing -- will hardly help in that regard.

Some FG deputies also privately agree that the Government erred in not being much tougher and decisive in the first year of office, particularly given its huge mandate.

The presence of the troika has ensured that the Government had to deliver on the budgetary targets. It couldn't, like the FitzGerald/Spring government, long-finger cuts to spending.

But crucially in last year's budget, the Coalition didn't address the key issues of social welfare reform or the public sector pay bill. Promised savings/reforms in health also proved more aspirational than real.

The nagging feeling is that the Government will come to regret that initial softly, softly approach. The noticeably increased urgency from Kenny & co in recent days suggests that may already be happening.

The real problem facing the Government -- similar to FitzGerald and Spring 30 years ago -- is that the only budgetary choices they have are of the Hobson's choice/lesser of two evils variety. The ideological differences between the parties mean the kind of measures likely to placate Labour deputies will probably have the opposite impact on Fine Gael TDs and vice versa.

With no sign of a deal on bank debt, several tough budgets to come and literally dozens of coalition TDs worrying about their seats in the next election, there's likely to be plenty more talk of backbench unease in the weeks and months ahead.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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