Friday February 21, 2020

Gloves come off as parties prepare for talks on a new deal

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael expect overtures to be made imminently to arrange a process for negotiations to get underway between both sides for a renewal of the confidence and supply deal

9th October, 2018
Stage set for Varadkar call to FF. Pic: RollingNews.ie

The budget has been delivered and so, technically, the Confidence and Supply Agreement has reached the end of its intended lifespan.

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael expect overtures to be made imminently to arrange a process for negotiations to get underway between both sides for a renewal of the deal.

So far, we don’t know whether those talks will lead to an extension of the arrangement for one more budget or two. Or whether they might instead break down at the last minute, precipitating a general election.

For however much longer the minority government arrangement lasts, there is no doubt - listening to the budget speeches - that the ballot boxes are not too far from anybody’s mind.

The €40 million allocated for pavement repairs across the country will literally and symbolically make things easier for those who intend to pound them looking for votes in the months ahead.

While there were no big giveaways, and for all its talk of prudence, Paschal Donohoe’s Budget 2019 speech had one eye on the general election. His message was of a government that is responsible and sensible, yet caring, and there was enough of a nod to help out hard pressed families while also balancing the books.

Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, used his speech to deliver his party’s most robust critique yet of the government’s record on housing. He said that while the budget provides the money and the policy direction on the issue, it is up to the government to deliver.

Careful to ensure his party, by virtue of its support for Fine Gael, does not get tied up in the blame for housing failure, he said: “It is the government that has executive authority; it is the government that controls the Department of Housing; it is the government that is responsible for addressing the housing crisis and it is the government that must accept that its performance on housing is not good enough.”

It was Barry Cowen’s speech that was the most political, where the gloves truly came off

There were also some hints of his party’s election messaging when he suggested that Fine Gael's strategy of blaming all failures on Fianna Fáil's past should not wash: “The easy part is saying we have learned lessons from the past. The hard part is making policy changes that give effect to that in a tangible way," he said.

It was Barry Cowen’s speech that was the most political, where the gloves truly came off for the electoral battle that lies ahead.

The public expenditure spokesman dedicated the first part of his speech to a passionate defence of Fianna Fáil’s decision to facilitate a Fine Gael minority government.

Many who criticised the budget “took a ten-week holiday” during government formation talks while “Fianna Fáil put country before opportunism”, he said.

Cowen pointed to Fianna Fáil’s achievements under the deal, the main one being that it ensures a two to one split in favour of investment in public services over tax cuts. It has been closer to four to one in this budget, he said, comparing it to what went before: “It is worth remembering what a sea change this has been, for in the last budget before the 2016 election Fine Gael and the Labour party settled for a 50/50 split ensuring that it was regressive in nature.”

He said his party had “kept the faith” in difficult circumstances to maintain the centre ground of Irish politics. “Other parties have been content to sit on their hands. In Brendan Behan’s words their 'like eunuchs in a brothel; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves'”.

Budget day is one of those rare occasions where the electorate really tunes in to parliamentary politics. Neither side squandered the opportunity that this attention brings.

The task of the opposition spokespeople on Budget day has traditionally been to stand up and pick holes in the plan the government had delivered. In the circumstances of this unique relationship, and given that it’s most likely to be the last Budget day before the next election, Fianna Fáil chose a different course.

Cowen simultaneously gave it to the government and to the rest of the opposition with both barrels. He gave the electorate a strong defence of his party's decision to enter into the confidence and supply deal and he gave his party’s grassroots a justification for the thankless job of taking the worst of what government and opposition has to offer.

The stage is set for Leo Varadkar to pick up the phone to Micheál Martin.

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