No disguising party's most difficult period lies ahead
ANALYSIS:ANNUAL PARLIAMENTARY party meetings – or think-ins, as they’re colloquially called – were conceived for public relations purposes. All the parties have held them in choreographed sequence in early and mid-September just before the Dáil returns.
Of course, it is an opportunity for the parties’ TDs and Senators to regroup and to discuss the agenda for the new term. But there is always an ulterior motive: to drum up publicity after the humdrum summer months.
The formula is simple: unveil one or two “big ideas” and give the media unfettered access to the parliamentarians so they can gauge the mood. That can work both ways, especially if there is a discontented rump within the party eager to reopen old wounds.
Fine Gael’s parliamentary think-in in Killarney in 2003 was one such example, when Richard Bruton unveiled the first detailed criticism of benchmarking (warning it could cost €1 billion); as was Fianna Fáil’s famous Inchydoney think-in in late 2004 when Bertie Ahern and his party embraced “socialism”.
However, since the economic crisis began, such meetings have become more subdued and sombre affairs. That change of emphasis and style was accelerated by then taoiseach Brian Cowen’s ropey Morning Ireland interview after a late night at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Galway.
The Fine Gael meeting in Westport has reflected this new reality. There were no big announcements, no gimmicks, nothing elaborate. Instead the focus was placed relentlessly on two issues. The first has dominated political discourse for the past four years: the economic and jobs crisis. The second is the long-awaited children’s referendum which will take place in the autumn. The only genuinely fresh bit of news to come out of the meeting was that Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar will be the party’s director of elections for the referendum.
The Taoiseach made it clear, in private sessions and in his public pronouncements, that he considers the next four months will be the most difficult and challenging period the Government will face throughout its entire period in office.
Ahead lies the Becher’s Brook hurdle of a budget in which €3.5 billion in savings will have to be found. After a series of harsh budgets, finding the savings and new taxes will be difficult (especially with the Croke Park agreement in place, and with commitments not to touch income tax or social welfare rates).
This was a critical period, Kenny said in yesterday’s wrap-up conference. “The prevailing mood among the party’s TDs and Senators was one of resolve and determination. We will not resile from the mandate given by the people but to fulfil it and make sure Government runs its full term.”
Kenny’s assessment was confirmed by rank-and-file members.
There were a few potential issues of discontent in the run-up to the conference. One was the mixed messages from Coalition Ministers on the Croke Park deal. Many Fine Gael backbenchers don’t like the accord and are not afraid to say so. But once Kenny said categorically on Monday that the agreement would be honoured, they all accepted they must hold their noses and go along with it.
Another contentious issue was the property tax (especially after the household charge). The IMF, in its chapter IV report, did the Government a huge favour by calling for an astronomical €1 billion yield (or about €625 per household) on Monday.
The Government had never conceived of any tax as high. Michael Noonan was as quick out of the traps as Skywalker Puma in the Irish Greyhound Derby last Saturday night.
He helpfully explained the property tax would be nowhere as high as the IMF was suggesting. What seemed punitive on Sunday had suddenly become reasonable by Monday.
A small group of Fine Gael TDs and Senators began the ascent of Croagh Patrick yesterday in not very nice conditions. The tough rocky climb gave them a brief taste of the more prolonged penance that lies ahead.