Howlin says controversies damaged faith in Coalition

Minister for Public Expenditure expects tensions with Varadkar over funding to continue

Brendan Howlin: ‘We had a period of time at the beginning of this year, the early months of this year, where the Government lost focus. We didn’t manage the whole Irish Water thing well.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

Brendan Howlin: ‘We had a period of time at the beginning of this year, the early months of this year, where the Government lost focus. We didn’t manage the whole Irish Water thing well.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:01

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has admitted the Coalition “lost focus” in the early months of this year and “unsteadied people’s confidence” in its ability to govern.

Mr Howlin said the Government had every prospect of improving its opinion poll ratings before the local and European elections, but a number of controversies surrounding the Garda and Department of Justice damaged faith in the Coalition. He also conceded the setting-up of Irish Water could have been handled with greater skill.

“We had a period of time at the beginning of this year, the early months of this year, where the Government lost focus. We didn’t manage the whole Irish Water thing well,” Mr Howlin said in an interview with The Irish Times.

His comments came as Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said the Government “bit off more than we could chew” when it came into power in 2011, specifically referring to how quickly universal healthcare could be introduced.

Mr Varadkar said bringing about any changes in current structures involved dialogue and negotiation, and cautioned against moving too quickly during an interview on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne show on Thursday night.

“I do think that probably when we came into office as a Government, we bit off more than we could chew.

“We have tried to bring in universal healthcare in too short a time frame,” Mr Varadkar said.

Meanwhile, Mr Howlin said he and Mr Varadkar “have had our moments” over departmental spending and he expected tensions to continue in future.

Tension

“There’s always going to be a tension between big spending departments, their Ministers, and the department that is charged with bringing spending under control,” Mr Howlin said.

“I’ve had a working relationship with Leo; he was obviously Minister for Transport and Tourism. We’ve had our moments in terms of things he would like to have funded that I couldn’t fund, and I’m sure that will continue into the future.”

Mr Howlin firmly rejected former minister for health James Reilly’s assertion, delivered to Fine Gael TDs during the medical card fiasco, that Cabinet colleagues had forced unrealistic savings targets on his department.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, targets? You mean the budget that he agreed to and that Cabinet signed off on? I’ve a very simple rule: Government makes a decision and every member signs up to the decision,” Mr Howlin said.

“It’s a consensus view at the Cabinet table and it’s binding on everybody.

“They’re not abstract targets that we set. The business that we’re in is too serious for things to evaporate. Every line department is under incredible pressure.”

He said health expenditure had remained relatively constant over the past three years.

Mr Howlin said the Government had worked hard to balance the budget. The “extraordinary Zimbabwe-like deficit that we inherited” had been brought under control, and was set to come in under 3 per cent of GDP next year.

‘Amble across’

With the budget approaching in October, he said he had spoken to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan virtually every day for 3½ years.

How do they handle disagreements? “We discuss them and on occasion we amble across and have an imbibement and continue the discussion, and that sometimes fixes things; other times we just think about it for a bit longer.”

Asked if Labour would propose legislating for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities in its next manifesto, Mr Howlin said: “We haven’t discussed that yet but many people would feel, like I do, that the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities is something that morally should be addressed, but that’s not going to happen in the course of this Government.”