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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 21, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    Beating a hasty retreat

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    The Government climbdown on medical cards has one or two loopholes which may mean it is not as generous as it seems. Nevertheless it is a spectacular row-back from the original Budgetary position.

    Every budget, especially one prepared in a hurry like this one, is bound to have controversial aspects. But only rarely do Governments get it so wrong it causes their downfall (as in the case of John Bruton’s tax on children’s shoes), or near-downfall as in the current instance.

    There are of course still a couple of neuralgic issues. The one per cent income levy is likely to be made subject to a threshold very, very shortly (within hours of writing this, it was). The well-intentioned but misguided parking levy is another one that is going to drive the punters nuts if it isn’t severely recast.

    Irish people are a very tolerant race. Governments can get away with quite a lot, especially in times of economic downturn. But there is also an inherent sense of fair play among the voters which comes to the fore when they perceive something to be blatantly unfair.

    It was wise of Cowen & Co to backtrack on the medical cards. Unfortunately, their authority has suffered in the process, and other issues, e.g., in the educational sphere, will now assume a resonance they did not have before.

    The income levy could also sink the national pay agreement and then where will we be? I agree with Eoghan Harris writing last Sunday that the prospects for the Lisbon Treaty are now looking very dicey indeed.

    This is being written in a hotel-room in Shanghai. Along with a number of other journos I made plans to travel to China to cover the Taoiseach’s visit there this week. But at the last minute, Brian C. postponed his departure.

    He will now arrive tomorrow (Wednesday) evening, bypassing Shanghai and flying direct to Beijing. For the past two days, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has been heading the Irish trade delegation in Shanghai. He has been very helpful and obliging to the media in terms of answering questions on political matters back home, even though his knowledge of events in Ireland is necessarily second-hand and, given the distance and the time-gap, somewhat sketchy (although given his closeness to the Taoiseach he would have a pretty good grasp of the essentials).

    One thing that always surprises me about the Opposition: why do they not play the one-party state card more often? Since 1932, Fianna Fáil have only been out of power for about 17 years — they’ve been at the helm for the other 59 years. The Opposition could make quite a plausible case, some might say, that the near-permanent government party is out of touch, as evidenced in aspects of the latest Budget.

    Not that anyone should be under any illusion that a Fine Gael-led administration would necessarily be any better or more competent. The children’s shoes debacle shows that. The episode of the Heavy Gang allegations in the 1970s disturbed a lot of people and this coincided with a Fine Gael-led administration. 

    Meanwhile, a visit to China restores one’s sense of perspective. Our little island is a pinprick on the map by comparison. Yet we have points in common: like ourselves the Chinese lived on very short rations in the not-too-distant past. Like us they have had to cope with sudden prosperity and all that comes in its wake. Unlike ourselves they are still in a very strong position economically however.

    I definitely hold no brief for against FG or its health spokesman James Reilly but blaming him for the medical cards debacle seems to me a bit over the top. He was a leader of a professional association at the the and got the best deal he could for the GPs of Ireland. Now he’s in a different job and should be judged in the context of the present day. The hairstyle is another matter altogether.

    We are already shaping up for a 1948-type scenario after the next general election, which will now clearly have to be sooner than was previously thought, perhaps early next year. Fine Gael will be the largest party in opposition but may need to consider approaching  the Shinners to get a majority in the Dáil. Labour may have to wrestle with its conscience as between the two main parties, FF and FG.

    Politics is getting more interesting by the day.  

    Deaglán de Bréadún


    • Ray D says:

      if the Government has any cop-on left, then it will bring in a budget in December after giving every measure proper preparation and consideration and knowing all the figures. The reasons for holding an early budget were overtaken by the global financial meltdown and the normal budget (Dec.) now needs to be put in place. Mind you any December budget will need to be considerably more focussed and more swingeing and stringent than the Mickey Mouse October budget. Current public spending needs to be cut more drastically and the rates of income tax need to be increased by at least 5 points i.e. 25 and 46% respectively. If we don’t have another budget this year and we stick with the October budget, there will be hell to pay in the 2009 budget as the financial position will be even worse that this year.

    • John Browne says:

      I don’t think the performace of the Minister with responsibility for defence of the Government on Q and A last night did Brian any favours.
      If anything Willie O’Dea’s performance demonstrated some of the contempt which the Government has for the people. Saying that we didn’t understand the complexity of the situation and then playing the childish game of, “I know something you don’t know”. It showed Brian that he needed to move extremely quickly to close on this issue because there was a massive backlash against the Government and Willie was sent out to bear the brunt of it. I kinda felt sorry for him.
      Judging by last night you’re right Deaglán. It certainly looks like education is not going to go away. Now that the Governemnt have shown weakness and backed down, the pressure from all sides is going to be relentless. They’ll all smell the Blood in the Water.

      The question now is whether the two Brians (Cowen and Lenihan), or the three Marys (Coughlan, Hanafin and Harney) can keep their positions.

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