Budget presents real opportunity
When the 'confidence and supply' agreement which underpins the Fine Gael-led minority Government with Independent TDs was first negotiated with Fianna Fail there were many who felt the arrangement would not last the test of time, and yet the Government is two weeks from introducing its second Budget. The stability of the current arrangement, while not always solid, seems more secure than this time last year and, whatever its undeniable faults, that is to be welcomed.
At a time of great international uncertainty, which inevitably impinges on this country, the value of a stable form of government should not be underestimated. As such, the participants in this Government and its tentative supporters from the Opposition benches deserve some due credit, if not unquestioning praise. To borrow and alter a well-worn phrase, there have been some worthwhile achievements but a lot more needs to be done. Paschal Donohoe's first Budget as Finance Minister represents a real opportunity to use the recovery to invest in the change and supports the country needs to present better opportunities for all.
In the Dail last week the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, put great store in his Government's first priority, which is to balance the State's books and to do so for the first time in 10 years. In doing so he was sharply criticised by Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald who accused him of "cant and empty rhetoric" about balancing the books which, she claimed, was not worth a fig to struggling families. We take issue with that view. Mr Varadkar has stated the country currently carries a debt of approximately €200bn a year, about €30bn of which is as a consequence of bank bailouts. The vast majority of this debt was due to deficit spending. His point that there has been a huge amount of deficit spending by Governments since the foundation of the State was well made. Because of that deficit spending, it costs the State approximately €6bn a year to service debt. If Governments through history had balanced the books there would be an extra €5bn or €6bn a year to spend on health, housing, education and other pressing social issues.
Under the 'confidence and supply' agreement there is at a minimum a two-to-one split of the extra money available in the Budget between investment in public spending and tax reductions. This means more money is available for initiatives in health, education, housing, childcare, social protection and capital spending. The requirement for such spending has been well made, the need evident all around us.
There is, however, also a need to make good on a return to the citizens of the State, the 'squeezed middle' for which this newspaper has repeatedly advocated. The time for that return has arrived.
Furthermore, one does not need to be a parent to understand that there is also a pressing need for a childcare package to assist hard-pressed parents who comprise the backbone of this country. To have suggested otherwise, whether intended or not, was wrong and the first available opportunity to correct such an impression should be taken by Ms McDonald arising out of her Dail debates with the Taoiseach last week.