Sunday 19 January 2020

It's no time for sideshow spats

When Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition government last March, the two parties proclaimed their intention to govern in harmony and with "common purpose". There has been no harmony or sign of common purpose in the dispute over cuts in disability allowances.

Some disagreement on this and a multitude of other issues was always inevitable. The Government took office in appalling economic circumstances. It would have to implement unpopular policies, and strains would make their appearance within and between the two parties.

But the recent sniping between Fine Gael and Labour is both unusual and deplorable.

Unusual, in that it marks a straight Fine Gael-Labour confrontation.

Deplorable, in that it is a childish, unnecessary and an unpleasant insight into how the Government conducts its business.

Essentially, it consists of a Bart Simpson-style denial of responsibility on both sides. Joan Burton, the Social Protection Minister, made the proposal. Another Labour minister, Brendan Howlin, signed off on it. Finance Minister Michael Noonan has let it be known that he does not like it.

Meanwhile, the merits of the case have scarcely been discussed. The proposed cuts do not constitute a callous attack on young disabled persons, merely a questionable way of going about social welfare reform. The remedy lies in reviewing the proposal, something already promised -- but also acknowledging a mistake.

All governments dislike admitting mistakes, but they gain more credit for a timely admission and apology than for unseemly exercises in trying to shift the blame.

They can also earn credit for showing a sense of proportion and for implementing correct procedures.

In the present case, it would seem that the two-part Budget was never subjected to detailed Cabinet scrutiny.

That flies in the face of the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Perhaps a badly-needed return to grown-up politics was signalled last night by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte when he said that the Government might have to renegotiate the Croke Park Agreement with the trade unions if it did not "deliver".

In a way, he was merely stating the obvious. No guarantees to any interest group can remain sacrosanct when our chances of escaping from the current economic turmoil are still far from clear.

How will the new European Union fiscal control arrangements agreed in Brussels affect us? What will be the consequences of Britain's opting out?

Faced with huge events, we need guidance, not sideshows.

Irish Independent

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