Friday 20 September 2019

Stakes high in a game of chicken where isolated Coveney simply couldn't flinch before Fianna Fáil

Minister Simon Coveney presents his Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Minister Simon Coveney presents his Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. Photo: Doug O'Connor
John Downing

John Downing

Privately, both sides were saying "this was not the one" to bring down a shaky minority Government just days from the Christmas break.

Publicly, both sides clung obdurately to their 'not-an-inch' stances over the new strategy for the rental sector.

From Housing Minister Simon Coveney's point of view, he simply had to stand his ground and not flinch in this strange game of chicken. The lack of choice very probably helped him - he just had to win.

On the other side, Fianna Fáil's part-time political bruiser, Barry Cowen, felt his party could gain another slice of "ownership" and help enhance their political positioning as the renters' friend.

Already, he was claiming his party moved Fine Gael on rent caps - something Labour failed to do.

Mr Coveney had a long and grim struggle to get these plans for a rent cap through the Cabinet against formidable opposition from the Finance Department.

He had no scope to go back and say the ones underpinning the Government now wanted to unpick many details it took weeks to put in place.

Fianna Fáil had three demands: the 4pc cap on rent increases in Dublin and Cork should be halved to 2pc; Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and commuter counties around Dublin should also be designated as so-called rent pressure zones; and tax incentives to keep landlords should be part of the initiative.

The Taoiseach said the rent pressure zones could be extended to the other cities and the commuter belt in due course, perhaps as early as February.

Landlord tax incentives were already being phased in, but another tranche must await the next Budget.

Both the Taoiseach and Housing Minister were insistent that the 4pc was not up for grabs. Both said longer-term studies of rents showed increases had historically hovered around 7pc and too harsh a limit could encourage "black market distortions".

That sinister phrase emerged in a five-page letter which Mr Coveney sent to Mr Cowen in the course of the day. In essence, the stand-off was about Fine Gael's 4pc cap and Fianna Fáil's demand it be cut to 2pc. More usually, you could see that landing as: "Call it 3pc so. Sure, it's nearly Christmas."

But not this time.

Two straws in the wind, however, suggested a way could be found to paper over those cracks. In the Dáil, Micheál Martin said Fianna Fáil wanted to be constructive and see the plans approved before Christmas so as to avoid any landlords pulling fast changes in case of any delay.

And then it emerged that a planned Dáil sitting on Friday was cancelled and Christmas holidays would start today instead. Hardly an intimation of a totally intractable crisis - yet the melodrama persisted.

When put to him earlier on RTÉ radio's 'Today With Sean O'Rourke' that this could mean defeat for his plan to tackle the crisis in the rental sector, Mr Coveney replied: "Then I don't think the legislation will be going through before Christmas."

Then he added a little foretaste of blame games to come with this: "And if Fianna Fáil want to take that on themselves, well then so be it."

It was easier for Simon Coveney to predict a pass-the-parcel win than to achieve it. Reality is that both parties would harvest considerable opprobrium with plenty for all. Hardly a great note upon which to head into Christmas.

Predictably, most of the other parties insisted the rental strategy was poor fare at best. Sinn Féin and Labour insisted rent hikes should be kept to the rate of inflation, currently close to zero.

In a re-run of a row with Fine Gael in the last government, Labour leader Brendan Howlin was arguing that the 4pc cap was many times the inflation rate. Mr Coveney remained in splendid isolation.

Irish Independent

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