Fianna Fáil moralising raises heckles from finger-pointing backbenchers
SKETCH:The past is still far from being a foreign country for Fianna Fáil, even if the party is making a dramatic recovery in the opinion polls.
This was brought home to frontbench spokesman Billy Kelleher yesterday, when he tackled Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin on the property tax at Opposition Leaders’ Questions.
When Kelleher insisted that the tax was inherently unfair and unjust, there was laughter and heckling from the Government benches. The historical elephant in the chamber was that the tax was very much on the agenda when the Soldiers of Destiny were in power. “Why did Fianna Fáil propose it,” asked Labour’s Emmet Stagg.
Kelleher said CSO figures had shown disposable income had fallen for a fourth year in a row. People could not afford the basics of heating, gas and oil.
Minister of State Kathleen Lynch asked: “How did that happen?” Labour colleague Eric Byrne gave his version of history. “Fianna Fáil bankrupted the country.” Kelleher played the man rather than the ball which was hovering dangerously near the Fianna Fáil net, with the possibility of an embarrassing own goal.
“When Deputy Eric Byrne is on one’s side, one knows one is in trouble.” Kelleher ploughed on, joined by just two Fianna Fáil colleagues, Barry Cowen and Seán Ó Fearghail, in the once swollen party benches.
He asked why there was no relief for people who had purchased homes at the height of the boom, paying excessive stamp duty. Why had the Government not taken into account an inability to pay at a time when families were under huge pressure? Howlin reminded him that the property tax was part of a commitment solemnly signed up to by a Fianna Fáil-led government.
Kelleher said people would be forced to pay the tax, even if they could not afford to put food on the table or oil in the tank. “Fianna Fáil’s legacy,” said Stagg.
Howlin put the boot in. “Fianna Fáil’s criticism of this Government’s strategy is based on its denial that it brought this country to the brink of economic ruin.” Kelleher said that when Howlin was in opposition, he had called for more spending and less taxes. Howlin, urged on by backbenchers, dismissed Kelleher’s “finger-pointing and shouting”.
The Fianna Fáil TD, he said, could not deny that two years ago a new Government had picked up the pieces of a broken economy. The Minister said that up to 30 per cent of the tax base had collapsed and broadening it required a property tax analogous to every other developed country across the world.
Addressing the depleted Fianna Fáil ranks, he said: “The deputies opposite have no shame.” Kelleher tried to put on a brave face, but Cowen and Ó Fearghail looked miserable.
Government backbenchers always find their voice when Fianna Fáil is critical of policy initiatives considered by the party when in power. Smiles broaden when the party moralises about the state of the country. The road to recovery for the Soldiers of Destiny is paved with landmines ready to be primed by recollections of their years in power.