Tuesday 21 January 2020

FF faces tricky task - responding to a Budget it helped formulate

Fianna Fáil Finance spokesman Michael McGrath Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Fianna Fáil Finance spokesman Michael McGrath Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
John Downing

John Downing

It has always been rated as an extremely difficult task and it has bested some of our most accomplished politicians, who went on to hold the highest offices in the land.

It happens just after the Finance Minister and the Public Expenditure Minister have set out their stalls. It's a time when deputies on all sides make a break for the door.

The journalists in the press gallery are keen to hit the phones and computers and work out their next move.

But just at that moment, it falls to the principal opposition finance spokesperson to take up the cudgels. In reality, up to now, what he or she has to say has been at very best of marginal interest.

Realpolitik tells us that the action is elsewhere. It is all too easy to be ignored. But this year it may be somewhat different given the Dáil arithmetic and our much-vaunted "new politics."

Like it or lump it, Fianna Fáil has had a big and sometimes very noisy input into this Budget. There is every chance that their spokespeople - Michael McGrath on finance, Dara Calleary on public spending, and Willie O'Dea on social welfare - will have their dabs all over tomorrow's Budget.

So, it falls to Mr McGrath to formulate the party's headline response. In the past, he would stand up and give it a bit of more-in-sorrow-than-anger condemnation. It would be a tale of "missed opportunities" and an all-round assessment of the other crowd's efforts as "poor fare."

This time, it's a little trickier. But odds are that the Cork chartered accountant will stand up and praise the considerable Fianna Fáil chunks in Budget 2017, and try to remind everyone that, only for them, the document's main thrust would be about giving posher folk tax cuts at the cost of improved public services.

It will be no surprise if he reminds us that more money is needed for third-level education, especially the Institutes of Technology. There could well be a swipe at the low level of capital investment.

He will then lament the lack of other Fianna Fáil initiatives in the Budget. Cue some nasty swipes at the "anti-business notions" propounded by Sinn Féin and parties of the left, notably the Anti- Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit.

Mr McGrath will garnish it all with some reminders that these groupings "ran away" when it came to taking responsibility for government formation earlier this year. Add some references to Spain, without a government and facing into its third general election in 12 months, and you have the basic McGrath script.

You see, Fianna Fáil remains in the business of staying in business and driving on. 'Brexit' changed the public mood. 'New politics' is for the academics - it does not entirely help with gaining traction in the next election.

Or, does it? Well, let's not run too far ahead of things.

The perennial political question remains: "How long can this Government last?" One of the best ways of answering that imponderable is to frame another question: When will Fianna Fáil break 30pc-and-climbing in the opinion polls?

Before the summer break, the answer to that one appeared to be "soon" as the party soared. But three consecutive opinion polls, in three consecutive weeks, have shown Micheál Martin's party to be very much stalled.

My own personal theory for the moment, as noted above, is that the shock outcome of the Brexit vote on June 23 has had an effect on the Irish public mood.

We are, quite rightly, no longer certain that economic recovery will continue to happen.

Britain leaving the EU, and the resultant fall in Sterling, has hit Irish businesses dependent on British exports. It is a dismaying thought, but this may soon have an impact on the unemployment rates.

There is an element of whistling past the graveyard in the business news from Britain which has followed the Brexit vote. The medium to longer-term effect could well be recession in our second-biggest trading partner's economy. Any way you look at that one, it is bad news for Irish jobs.

None of it would be good news for Fianna Fáil, which continues to be a mid-market, mainstream pro-European Union party. Its dilemma is that in those gloomy circumstances, the messages of Sinn Féin and the parties of the left may be more attractive.

Everyone in Fianna Fáil knows that the current opinion polls are telling them that they do not need an election. The rest of us know, that bar the odd detail, a repeat of the election held on February 26 would leave us exactly where we are.

Odds are Fianna Fáil will abstain as expected tomorrow in the key Budget votes. But it will allow Budget 2017 to go through in line with its confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael.

There will not be an election this year but there could well be one in 2017.

The best an early election vote would deliver Mr Martin would be a few extra seats. That could conceivably leave Fianna Fáil in Fine Gael's current situation, potentially and eventually leading a minority coalition dependent on "the other crowd."

That is, of course, called having responsibility without power. It is a very unenviable position in any walk of life, but it is particularly disagreeable in national politics, especially for an organisation like Fianna Fáil, which up to now has only thrived in power.

All of this is to say that what Mr McGrath has to say tomorrow is of relevance and will be worth listening to. For better or worse, 'new politics' will be with us for some time to come.

It seems a lifetime ago, but Fine Gael fought the February General Election on an ill-starred slogan of "keep the recovery going." The party has struggled back into office but is hugely dependent on Independents and Fianna Fáil.

Since this minority coalition took office on May 6, we have had a series of serious shocks. There was the June Brexit vote; the EU decision to fine Apple €13bn; and big conflicts about the public sector pay arrangements.

All of these issues require careful management from a prudent Government which is focused on the job. But our political environment remains very febrile and it is not conducive to such good government.

The two "moneybags ministers" are to be commended for sticking to their tasks and leaving the bulk of the showboating to Fianna Fáil and, more recently, to the Independents. The public mood is conditioned, and we do not expect big giveaways.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss