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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 15, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    New Term, new leaf? Hardly

    Harry McGee

    The Dáil resumes tomorrow for the Spring term and later today the Government will announce its legislative progamme, in other words the Bills it hopes to publish between now and the end of the Easter break. There will be a little less than 30 Bills, I am told, and there are two chances of them all being published: little or none.

    It always happens. Government guillotines debate on legislation in the Dáil and Seanad. Opposition complains bitterly. Says it will bring in reform. Opposition becomes Government and sets about imposing guillotines on debate in legislation in Dáil and Seanad.

    Ditto with legislative programmes. The opposition constantly criticised the fact that so few of the promised Bills each term actually got published. Now the opposition is in Government and it’s going through the same process.

    Ditto Dáil reform. The opposition mocked adjournment debates because they were too late at night and the relevant Minister never showed up but farmed it off to colleagues. Now it’s called topical issues and even though it’s on earlier that day, it’s not a huge improvement on what went before. Certain ministers are seldom there to answer questions relating to their brief.

    Like everything else in Ireland – a small country, a settled democracy, a very oligarchical form of governing, innate conservatism, resistance to change – when they happen occur, changes happen incrementally, a little like the way the days gradually get brighter as the year progresses.

    That’s why the claim by the incoming Government that it had affected a “democratic revolution” was such an assault on the English language. That said, there are a number of important and substantial issues that will dominate this Dáil term.

    The most obvious one is abortion. From a legislative point of view, it’s going to be relatively quiet for a month or so, as the Department of Health prepares draft legislation.

    But that wont’ prevent the intensification or the continuance of the debate and the divisions in the public sphere. The pro-life rally on Saturday will serve as another reminder that this tangled and problematic issue will be a dominant issue in the political year.

    But it seems certain that the legislation and guidelines – including a threat of self-destruction as grounds for lawful abortion – will pass, given the whips being imposed and the huge majority of the Government.

    Even without a whip, the middle ground of Fine Gael will support the Bill. Many who had been veering against the Bill were convinced enough by the medics last week to veer the other way.

    There will be an issue with a minority of Fine Gael TDs who can see no alternative but to vote against the law on grounds of moral conscience. Politically, the most salient aspect will be their number and how the Fine Gael party deals with them from a disciplinary perspective.

    Elsewhere, the promissory note issue will feature prominently in political discourse between now and Easter. There’s a looming deadline waiting at the end of March. Last year, the Government did a bit of a three card trick and ‘magicked’ away the €3 billion due for a year.

    But anything less than a permanent deal to make the €30bn burden (originally to be paid over a shockingly short ten years) sustainable will cause a huge amount of bother for both Coalition parties.

    That is particularly so given the overweening confidence which Ministers have displayed in telling all and sundry that a deal is in the big/imminent/ there for the taking.

    We’ll believe it when we see it. There have been too many false dawns on debt deals with the ECB and others in the short lifetime of the Government. If they pull it off, they will be heroes. If they don’t, they will be hammered. It’s a simple as that.

    A little later in the year, the introduction of the property tax will be the pencilled-in event that should dominate the middle of the year. It’s a big new tax and will rake in €300m in a full year adding hundreds to the annual household tax bill.

    I’m not sure if it’s by happenstance or design but the fact that it is being staggered in will make it seem a little palatable. Householders will pay for six months this year and it will not be until 2014 that the full weight of it will have to be borne.

    The Government’s calculation is that by that stage it will have bedded itself in and people may grumble about it but will generally accept it. I’m not so sure about that. It’s going to be very unpopular, in July this year, in January next year too.

    The other question is: will there be a campaign of disobedience this year and will it have the success of last year’s campaign? Yes, for sure, but I suspect it will not have the traction of last year.

    For one, Revenue is in charge and having studied the mistakes from last year will not repeat them. Also, there won’t be any messing around with those who don’t comply.

    It’s interesting that Sinn Féin today said very firmly that it will confine its opposition to the Bill to parliamentary protest, including drafting its own bills. The fact that the party won’t take to the street, to me, looks like another of those small and deliberative steps towards the mainstream.

    Sure, it didn’t officially protest on the streets last year. But like everybody else in Irish politics, incremental change is the name of the game for Sinn Féin.

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