Wednesday 18 September 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Looming no-deal forces Fianna Fáil to tame its giveaway instinct'


Stock: PA
Stock: PA
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Fianna Fáil has always been a party that prides itself on using the levers of government to deliver social supports for the elderly and vulnerable.

In the late 1960s it was Charlie Haughey who brought in free travel and subsidised electricity for pensioners, as well as special tax concessions for the disabled. Free travel in particular is now so woven into the fabric of Irish society that it would be nigh on impossible to get rid of without a grey revolution.

Fianna Fáil knows this more than most parties, having been forced to reverse a plan to cut the over-70s medical card in the midst of the financial crisis over a decade ago following angry protests from pensioners.

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So it's little wonder the party has used its significant influence under the Confidence and Supply deal with Fine Gael to push for pensioners to get a break. A 'fiver-for-all' has been a staple of the past three Budgets - benefiting more than 600,000 pensioners, the largest cohort of the 1.3 million on some form of social welfare.

But a no-deal Brexit is now threatening a repeat of this in this year's Budget on October 8 - despite the demands of Fianna Fáil social protection spokesman 'Fiver' Willie O'Dea and several of his party colleagues.

The consequences of the UK crashing out of the EU were laid bare in stark detail yesterday with the leaking of a secret UK government document warning of a return to a hard Border on this island as well as shortages of fuel, food and medicine in the UK. There will be dire knock-on consequences for Ireland with the agri-food sector among the worst to be hit. Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesperson Lisa Chambers warned of "contagion", while Ibec's latest economic outlook today warns of significant trade disruption in the event of no deal.

Such dire warnings make the idea of the Government, with the help of Fianna Fáil, announcing a giveaway Budget with tax cuts and spending increases laughable.

Fianna Fáil has already signalled that tax cuts should be off the agenda in a no-deal Brexit. Now its most base instinct to secure electoral success through a giveaway to pensioners - who always vote in their droves - will have to be tempered by the realities of a no-deal Brexit.

Mr O'Dea argues pensioners can still be accommodated. His two colleagues, who'll be negotiating with Paschal Donohoe, Michael McGrath and Barry Cowen argue otherwise. But Mr O'Dea has support on the front and backbenches of Fianna Fáil.

He also has the backing of Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath, who told this newspaper recently he wants a €5 increase for pensioners. Mr McGrath has since signalled this may not be possible in a no-deal Brexit. Mr O'Dea is undeterred and a robust battle within Fianna Fáil is under way.

But given the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit it now appears that the 'fiver-for-all' will be off the table on Budget day.

Irish Independent

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