Thursday 23 January 2020

Fionnan Sheahan: Divisions threaten Coalition as tough Budget approaches

Fionnan Sheahan

'I'D rather be talking about the Budget." There was precious little silver lining to be harnessed for a Fine Gael minister as a result of the distraction from the debate on Budget 2013.

Just eight days away from the toughest Budget to date and the spotlight is largely on a range of health related issues, from abortion, to the inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar, the €300m overrun in the Department of Health and HSE budget requiring an emergency bailout, to the criteria for the selection of primary care sites.

Health Minister James Reilly remains at the eye of the storm, on multiple fronts.

It'll get a lot worse for him next week when the extent of the €900m worth of health cuts he will have to initiate in 2013 will be revealed.

The minister is in no danger of being forced to resign, despite the continued protests from Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein seeking to capitalise on Dr Reilly's perceived incompetence.

"It's great. Ten days away from the Budget and they're still going on about it," a backbench TD laughed yesterday.

While having no love for James Reilly, the Labour Party hasn't been tying itself in knots over his latest bungling. The junior coalition party didn't call for his head in September, when one of its own junior minister resigned over the affair, so it won't be revisiting that position now.

Furthermore, Roisin Shortall's decision to resign and walk away from government did not illicit sympathy from many in her own party and they are not going to rejoin her battles now.

The continued furore over the Health Minister also provides Fianna Fail with an opportunity to delay stating its own position on abortion. The Government won't be complaining that the spotlight isn't falling solidly on the Budget preparations.

After the leak-fest last year, and the scaremongering – mainly from the Health Minister and Social Welfare Minister Joan Burton – a clampdown has been implemented.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Spending Minister Brendan Howlin have proved adept at keeping a lid on their deliberations – whether their colleagues like this scenario or not.

The higher echelons of the Government have clearly decided there's no point in softening up the public when the Budget is just going to be savage.

Likewise, what's the point in letting backbenchers get lobbied over measures that are going to have to be implemented anyway?

But there are concerns about the onslaught TDs will face as a result in a week's time.

"There has been no preparing people," a coalition backbencher said, expressing worry there will be widespread protests over the budget.

Coalition tensions are bubbling under on several fronts.

The next fortnight will determine what this Government is made of. Getting this Budget through intact will be extremely difficult.

Already, the parties are firing shots over areas they want to see protected.

Labour wants higher levels of tax for big earners, which many in Fine Gael agree with in principle but in practice warn will damage the competitiveness of the economy.

Labour's demand for a 3pc hike in the USC for those over €100,000 is being countered by a threat from Fine Gael to cut the dole.

The budgetary process is not about tit-for-tat, but if the Coalition is going to unveil a savage €3.5bn worth of taxes and spending cuts, then both parties are going to want their own bases covered.

The Budget is being prepared against the backdrop of a divisive debate on abortion, which is also threatening the viability of the Coalition.

The Labour Party appears to be relatively satisfied with the outcome of the report of the expert group on abortion as it effectively backs up it's view that legislation is required.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny summed up the position of his party, and many in the middle ground, when he said the "vast majority of people understand what needs to be done here".

"But they do not want to move to a position where you have abortion on demand in the country," he added.

THE fear within Fine Gael is any legislation opens the door for abortion on a wider scale. The X Case determines that suicide is a grounds for abortion.

But several Fine Gael ministers and TDs have reservations on the suicide issue.

It has become the new frontline over the debate on abortion in the party.

"The lull in this over Christmas will allow the Pro-Life lobby to gain momentum," a party backbencher said ominously.

Mr Kenny will have to balance the requirement to do something with the worries of his party, while also factoring in existing law and the position of his coalition partners in Labour.

And all this, with a minister in charge of the area who has repeatedly shown a lack of political judgment.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss