Friday 20 September 2019

Mandy Johnston: This was the opening shot of the election we all know isn't far off

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe after the Budget. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe after the Budget. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Mandy Johnston

Did Budget 2018 yesterday ignite a republic of opportunity? Well, no. But as prophesied, the Government told us this Budget was not designed to suddenly plonk us in a utopian Ireland, but would allow us to step forward in the right direction.

In reality, this procyclical Budget was essentially the first step undertaken by Fine Gael to influence the outcome of an election, whenever Fianna Fáil deems it appropriate to trigger one.

As a piece of political theatre, Budget 2018 is constructed to improve the lives of the many and not the few. The overarching objective of this €1.8bn package is to solidify our course for a continued recovery.

Our lexicon for political analysis of the annual budget derives largely from proactive leaking that precedes the timeworn spectacle.

This year, we were awash with information. Reporters took no prisoners and breathlessly hijacked the airwaves with alarming declarations that abandoned any notion of speculation.

Commentators relayed predictions of what would ultimately transpire in Budget 2018 with all the aggression of a teenage girl's eyebrow. The Budget speech is no longer a revelation, it seems, but merely a singular sermon in Dáil Éireann which every TD feels morally compelled to attend.

Its only unique feature is that the chamber is actually full.

Today, a new piece of theatre will commence. That age-old tradition of framing the Budget - or seizing political capital, to put it more simply. Ownership of popular measures, such as the cut in the 2.5pc rate of USC by 0.5pc and the middle 5pc rate by 0.25pc and changes in tax brackets, will invariably convulse political debate in the coming days.

However, a more genuine political opinion of Budget 2018 will emerge over the weekend as Government representatives go back to their constituencies and receive the views in their local political clinics about micro-issues which affect their constituents' lives specifically.

And whilst today we slavishly follow our desire to analyse how the Budget will benefit us as individuals, the wider consideration of introducing a pro-cyclical Budget at this time may have changed the dynamic between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Recent opinion polls suggest that An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's dexterity in communicating with the Irish public is working. Often derided, opinion polls have the capacity to change political undercurrents just as Budgets do.

Every increase in the Government's popularity or increase in support for Fine Gael places renewed pressure on Fianna Fáil to begin leveraging some political traction for its confidence and supply support.

In terms of its 'confidence and supply' shopping list, Fianna Fáil opted for less jingoistic headline-grabbing elements than perhaps we might have expected.

Their ultimata centred around USC reductions to cover as many people as possible, securing tapered mortgage-interest-relief benefits, and a two-to-one increase in spending on services.

In particular, Fianna Fáil called for more capital spending on housing, health and transport.

More interesting was Fianna Fáil's continued emphasis on more 'niche' areas, such as the funding of mental-health services, the pupil-to-teacher ratio in classes, home-care packages and personal-assistant hours for people with disabilities.

Yesterday, it was quick out of the traps to claim ownership of the National Treatment Purchase Fund restoration - a development that will go some way towards addressing long waiting lists and overcrowding.

Substantial investment in home help and money to assist those affected by dementia and funding for scoliosis were also included at Fianna Fáil's behest, it says.

Such measures are extremely welcome to those who need it, however they will not garner national attention by themselves.

Fianna Fáil needs to begin articulating its influence more. Marginal issues that do not benefit everyone are much harder to gain political traction on at a national level.

However, they will prove very beneficial when it comes to election time if Fianna Fáil can claim ownership of them in the days and months ahead.

Observing such political restraint is crucial to the ongoing rebranding of Fianna Fáil as responsible assistants to Ireland's continued recovery.

Avoiding histrionics for now is inherently sensible.

As the possibility of an election draws ever closer, the nervous Soldiers of Destiny may become increasingly hard to mollify and more difficult for their leader Micheál Martin to appease.

Optically at least, the political stereotypes of both parties appear utterly reversed in Budget 2018.

With Fine Gael behaving like some swashbuckling Harrison Ford come to rescue us from a Temple of Doom, Fianna Fáil seems content to play a minor supporting role on the margins of the real action. But it continues to lurk in the wings.

Scepticism of Fianna Fáil's motives remains, though. Is its commitment to responsible government genuine, or is it petrified of creating a dystopian nightmare for the future?

With Fine Gael behaving like Fianna Fáil in full-on, flat-out election mode and Fianna Fáil behaving like a more responsible conservative demur observer, the normal political order seems turned on its head.

Not since Bertie's attempted raid on Joe Higgins's socialist apparel have we witnessed such blatant political clothes-swapping in action.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe delivered an assured performance through a consensus-driven Budget.

Designed to please many and offend no one, it provided a kaleidoscope of cover for a party in Government but not really in power.

Irish Independent

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