The queue to get into Sinn Féin’s tent at the Ploughing Championships said much about the changing face of politics. Traditionally the prevail of the Civil War parties, Sinn Féin is a firm fixture in the annual gathering of middle and rural Ireland, although Eamon Ryan’s name did pop up a lot too in conversation – and not for good reasons.
Mary Lou McDonald was back in the heartland of the tech multinationals later in the week to publish her party’s “alternative budget”.
“I just about made it over one of these podiums,” she remarked. “I made it,” said her colleague Mairéad Farrell, before Ms McDonald pointed out: “With the benefit of a step.”
Along with Pearse Doherty, the trio were perfectly in step with explaining their policies. Alternative budgets are a consequence-free wish list, where the Opposition gets to pick holes and claim it would do it all better, without having to worry about any after-effects.
Sinn Féin’s brush with royalty appears to have rubbed off, as the party is suddenly anxious to broaden its appeal to millionaire mansion owners. The landed gentry and the rich alike will be delighted with the offer to cap their electricity bills at last year’s level. There’s the heating bill for the swimming pool taken care of courtesy of Sinn Féin – the monarchic party. After all, the head of Sinn Féin takes up their role uncontested and holds onto it unchallenged for decades. No wonder they empathise with the aristocracy.
The unscientific argument that big houses tend to be more energy-efficient so their bills are lower is top-of-the-head logic. With no guarantee of where energy bills are going to land, Sinn Féin says it’s setting aside €1.6bn for the universal measure which will go to every household regardless of their income.
Maybe the party is right, perhaps this is the only way to go to give certainty to households. It’s a pretty risky approach though, and leaves the Exchequer exposed.
Being able to cite the measure being introduced in other European countries also helps its cause against accusations of copying homework from the Tories and writing a blank cheque.
But the Sinn Féin policy isn’t just about populism – it’s easily understood by the public. Mary Lou McDonald is a skilled political communicator and her party’s messaging around the Budget is sharp, summed up in crisp sound bites: cap electricity bills, put a month’s rent back into renters’ pockets, cut childcare fees by two-thirds. Succinct connections with the voters have served Sinn Féin well. Sure, it’s sound bite over substance, but if substance genuinely mattered in politics, Richard Bruton would be the Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.
The Coalition can play Whac-A-Mole with Sinn Féin’s promises or learn from the way it pitches to the voters. Keep it simple.
Putting together Budget 2023 with €14bn on the table is complicated and there’s a risk the audience will get lost in the detail. The core message gets further confused when Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are each trying to chalk up their own wins.
The key to ensuring this Budget is well received is a unified message coming from the Government parties. Easier said than done. The indiscipline within the Coalition parties, individually and interacting with each other, is proving costly to their credibility. In the past week alone, there have been internecine potshots fired within the supposed Coalition over rural school buses, urban public disorder and European roles.
Keeping everyone on song in this Government is like herding cats, as there always seems to be someone going astray. Presenting the public with three different Budget pictures, one from each party – along with individual ministers trying to justify their own existence – will dilute the overall message.
Whether the leccie bills are tackled by a credit or a cap, the talk about targeting measures at those struggling the most doesn’t match up.
Just look at where the Department of Public Expenditure says €1.3bn in additional measures have been spent this year as the crisis unfolded. On the energy bills side, there was a fuel allowance lump-sum payment worth €225, which certainly was targeted. Likewise, the working family payment, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance and the hot meals extension for schools were targeted measures. But these measures targeted at the most vulnerable only accounted for less than €1 in every €10 spent.
The rest spread the benefits across the board to people of all incomes. Aside from the electricity credit, the public transport reduction, the excise duty cut, the Vat cut on bills, the 9pc Vat for the hospitality sector, the drugs payment scheme reduction and the school transport fees were all of universal benefit. Tomorrow’s Budget will follow a similar pattern.
Once again, child benefit comes back into the equation. Internationally, there are strong arguments for the State to support all families, regardless of income, with the costs of raising children. But the payment of child benefit means high earners on six-figure salaries will continue to be paid almost €1,700 a year by the State for a child – the same as those on low incomes. The Government will argue it’s not the only support for low-income families, as the welfare system provides a range of benefits.
Remarkably, the inability to target measures at those on low and middle incomes, but leave out those at the higher end, remains. Almost a decade ago, an expert group looked at child benefit and concluded it should remain universal, but those on low incomes should get more than those on high incomes, either through taxation of the benefit or a two-tier payment providing a top-up. The options would have involved means-testing and measuring family incomes.
After originally sitting on the report and not publishing it for more than a year – during a period where child benefit was under scrutiny because it was cut – the then social protection minister Joan Burton kicked the recommendations down the road. Nothing happened. In dismissing a report of the Commission of Taxation and Welfare as “straight out of the Sinn Féin manifesto”, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar shuts down debate on future policy development at a time when it’s needed. So nothing happens.