Saturday 25 January 2020

Educators' and doctors' unions signal end for hybrid minority FG-FF Government deal

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John Downing

John Downing

So it's exit teachers, enter doctors, and cue an additional heap of financial grief for Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

The spring union conference season is almost over. But it has already left its imprint upon our politics, as the three main teaching unions cede the media stage to the conference of the Irish Medical Organisation.

The week's doings have ramped up the negotiations for that third Budget of three, rounding off the odd-ball deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to prop up the minority Coalition we have had since May 6, 2016.

The week's trade union and political party scenarios have led to two often-repeated rhetorical questions:

1 Didn't that prop-up coalition arrangement last much longer than we would have thought?

2 It can hardly go much longer?

These are rhetorical questions, essentially a more sociable way of stating the bloody obvious. Let's obviate any doubt by delivering answers all the same.

These answers read simply: Question 1: Yes. Question 2: No.

We are looking at a general election very soon; it might happen in autumn 2018 or things might drag into spring 2019. In essence the difference will be denominated more in weeks than months.

The more immediate very good news for the avuncular but steely Finance Minister is that he has €3.2bn to spare - a first in more than a decade. But the downside is that, unlike Budgets in tough times which write themselves, this one comes with wagonloads of political baggage, excessive demands, and it is on the cusp of an election.

After cosying up to the teacher unions, and by extension to all public service workers, Fianna Fáil will take their Budget demands to the very brink in upcoming negotiations.

There is an increasing view within the party that their deal unpinning the Coalition will end this autumn.

Trailing Fine Gael in the opinion polls, many Fianna Fáil people now fear they are suffering for the Government's failure to deliver on housing, health and public pay restoration and want to fight demands ahead of the next Budget to the point of brinkmanship.

Many Fianna Fáil TDs believe the Confidence and Supply deal propping up the minority Fine Gael-led Coalition must not be renewed beyond this third Budget due in October.

Some deputies have privately voiced doubts about even that Budget being agreed and their finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, has conceded negotiations will be tough.

The only fear within the party is that it must avoid being blamed for causing an election the public may not want.

This mistrust and preparing for a mutual "blame game" is mirrored within Fine Gael who have said Fianna Fáil is trying to engineer an early election.

Mischievously, speaking to this newspaper, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said his successor Micheál Martin (right) was right to do the deal and support government in 2016 - but should quit once the three-year deal expired. "They can't do it again - when the three years are up," Mr Ahern said.

Senior party figures have tried to calm matters after Fianna Fáil public spending spokesman, Barry Cowen, said it was "unlikely" the government support deal would be extended beyond the third Budget as already agreed. "Its natural lifetime may be over," the Offaly TD said.

The party heavy-hitters Michael McGrath, and Willie O'Dea fielded to calm things.

They insisted the focus would be upon agreeing a Budget next October, improving services like health and housing.

They said the process allowing for a review of the arrangement after the October Budget could also be honoured - provided Fine Gael wanted this, and any final decision would come at the parliamentary party.

Mr McGrath said a lot of tough negotiations lay ahead but he also voiced party members' and supporters' frustration at the housing crisis and health service difficulties. He said it was too early to give a definitive view on government continuing beyond October.

But another senior figure privately said that there can be no assumption that the third Budget will be agreed for next October.

"I also definitely think that after the Budget, it's over," the party veteran said.


Irish Independent

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