Cormac McQuinn: 'Independents enter 'last-chance saloon' to prove their worth to voters'
Budget 2020 will be the 'last-chance saloon' for Independent ministers to show they have made an impact over almost four years in government.
There is a general election looming and Katherine Zappone, the four ministers of Shane Ross's Independent Alliance and junior minister Seán Canney will want to show voters they have delivered.
Their demands could prove to be a headache for the sheriff in town, Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, as the country faces into the potential chaos of a no-deal Brexit.
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To labour the Wild West metaphors further, Alliance 'gun-slinger' Finian McGrath opened fire first, saying he wants a €5 increase in the State pension.
He also said he wants a €20-a-week increase in payments to people on disability benefit and another €20-a-week extra for children in poverty.
He subsequently appeared to row back from this, saying the Government won't be able to afford across-the-board welfare increases due to Brexit.
But sources say the Independent Alliance ministers have not given up on getting pension increases or boosts to disability payments.
The latest proposal to emerge from the Alliance is the introduction of a levy on insurance companies' profits as a way of forcing them to lower premiums. It comes as the Government continues to struggle to tackle the spiralling cost of insurance for businesses.
A draft document on the proposal is being drawn up by Transport Minister Shane Ross and junior minister John Halligan is said to have been pushing for efforts to lower premiums.
There are a number of questions about such a levy, the main one being how insurance companies would be prevented from passing it on to consumers.
But it's a Budget demand the Alliance is examining. It will be keen to avoid the kind of coverage it got in the run-up to last year's Budget over Mr Ross's ill-fated 'granny grant' idea for grandparents who help with childcare, which ultimately came to nothing.
Despite sources insisting they're taking a cautious approach due to Brexit, don't be surprised if there are constituency demands from the Alliance ministers who have not been shy about making them in the past.
As the Irish Independent reports today, Children's Minister Ms Zappone is about to seek extra subsidised childcare hours for families with gross incomes of up to €100,000.
She had some success in last year's Budget in getting an increase in the income threshold to bring more families into the net for means-tested supports.
There is an awareness among Independent ministers that Mr Donohoe has been working on two Budgets: one based on an orderly Brexit and the other on a crash-out.
The latter seems like the more likely scenario.
Talks for Budget 2020 will ramp up over the coming weeks and, if agreed by Fianna Fáil, it is set to be the last under the extended confidence and supply agreement.
Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil anticipate the election coming at the latest in the first half of 2020.
That looming deadline will focus the minds of Independent ministers and it could mean a showdown with Mr Donohoe once Budget negotiations come to the crunch.