Sunday 15 September 2019

John Downing: 'Danger of no-deal Brexit gives 'Prudence' Donohoe excellent cover to deliver Budget aimed at election'

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
John Downing

John Downing

Brexit could yet prove an alibi for an election Budget next month by Paschal 'Prudence' Donohoe. No, that is not as cynical a statement as it may seem at first glance - it is simply realpolitik.

Yet again politicians will be hanging on developments in the UK as the end game approaches with huge potential fallout for Ireland North and south. That opening statement does not for a moment suggest the finance minister and his Government colleagues do not share all our horrors of the increasing likelihood of a Halloween nightmare crash-out.

We acknowledge Brexit has made the Government's job all the harder since that shock UK referendum result in June 2016. We further own that the uncertainty and continuing threats caused by Brexit have made Mr Donohoe's job tougher preparing for Budget day on October 8.

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It will be a 'Brexit Budget' any way you look at it. But as the 'Sunday Independent' reported yesterday, Mr Donohoe will unveil a raft of spending measures to support Brexit-vulnerable sectors and also reassure citizens we are not necessarily headed for a recession return so soon after emerging from our "lost decade".

Even conservative economists acknowledge the Government must act and spend to steady the economy and cushion those Brexit shocks.

The 'Sunday Independent' has learnt capital spending will be increased, the tourism sector will be boosted, and funding for diplomatic missions overseas will also be increased.

There will be targeted welfare increases to protect the most vulnerable people. There could even be scope for some tax breaks, depending on the state of the national coffers on the eve of Budget, and these could be justified as an effort to counteract citizens' natural reluctance to spend in a time of uncertainty.

We have long ago been told it is a very ill wind indeed that does not blow somebody, somewhere, some good. This time, in a strange and roundabout way, it could answer how Mr Donohoe can frame what looks like an election budget in a time of impending economic crisis, when his new middle name of 'Prudence' should be the watchword.

It makes sense for Mr Donohoe to hold back from sharing his broad strategy with his Cabinet colleagues for at least another week and await an idea of how things will pan out. The endgame begins in the Westminster Parliament tomorrow as anti-no-deal MPs across all parties begin their uphill battle to oblige Boris Johnson and his government to pull back from the brink.

Later in the week a variety of law cases against the UK government aimed at achieving a similar result will be heard in law courts in London, Belfast and Edinburgh. It says everything about the strange political terrain we now inhabit that former UK prime minister John Major is linked with one of these cases - effectively suing his successors in government.

Last Friday in Edinburgh, a group of 75 parliamentarians failed in their efforts to get an emergency injunction to stop Boris Johnson's suspension of parliament from September 9 until October 14. But tomorrow there is to be a full hearing of their case to block a no-deal Brexit and a ruling could be delivered as early as Wednesday.

This coming Thursday a case by activist Gina Miller is due to be heard in London. She has already successfully taken a case against Theresa May's former government arguing the UK could not leave the EU without a parliament vote.

Mr Major has asked to join this legal case. He has criticised Mr Johnson, accusing him of hypocrisy in arguing that Brexit was about giving MPs more power - and then side-lining Parliament, as he announced last Wednesday, when it suited him.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and Labour deputy leader Tom Watson have also backed Ms Miller's campaign. Mr Major had warned in July he would mount a legal challenge if Mr Johnson closed parliament, and in recent days he has said by joining Ms Miller's action he would avoid "taking up the court's time".

The Belfast Brexit case is listed for this coming Friday. It is being taken by civil rights activist Raymond McCord, who has expressed fears that Brexit could wreck the North's fragile peace.

Mr McCord's lawyers will argue Brexit is a threat to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the shutdown of the London Parliament is unconstitutional.

Some legal experts expect some or all of these cases to be referred upwards to the UK Supreme Court in another unprecedented move.

This would pose an enormous challenge for the senior judges who up to now have been very loath to be seen as intervening in politics. Unlike Ireland, the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, and nor does it have Ireland's custom and practice of having judges exert checks and balances in the political system.

But the main game will still be in the political cauldron that is Westminster as the most diverse range of politicians have just one week to thwart and block a no-deal Brexit. If they fail this week, the Parliament's planned return on October 14 will be just three days from a crucial EU leaders' summit on October 17, and a mere 17 days from the ultimate deadline.

The anti-no-deal group is a strange political rainbow, stretching from traditional Conservatives like former finance minister Philip Hammond, on the traditional right, all the way across to the far-left Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. A diverse anti-no-deal group only barely succeeded on April 4 last in a similar move.

Using emergency procedures, MPs took control of the parliamentary agenda, and passed - by only one vote - a measure to force Theresa May to delay Brexit, rather than leave with no deal. Can they do the same again?

Well, the record and more recent pronouncements by the Parliament chairman - or speaker - John Bercow suggest they could achieve the first part and tee up a vote. Whether they have the numbers, and the time, required to win through, is another day's work.

In the immediate term, agreeing a format of words, is crucial. For now it is expected to turn around obliging Mr Johnson to seek another extension.

That is no policy tweak - it is asking the head of government to remove the cornerstone of a strategy which got him the top job, and which he hopes will strengthen his grip on that job. We are in uncharted waters.

Back in Ireland, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan's call for an early Dáil recall has been initially rebuffed on grounds the UK cannot dictate our political arrangements. Mr Ryan argues the original reopening date on Tuesday fortnight will be after much of the UK action.

That curt refusal makes little sense as the UK dictates so much else just now - including Paschal Donohoe's Budget.

Irish Independent

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