Opposition seeks to turn screw on twitchy Labour
SKETCH:It was the morning after the budget and nerves were frayed.
Government backbenchers were preparing for the dreaded return to their constituencies. Rumours circulated that some Labour TDs might waver in their support for the budget in critical votes next week. Opposition TDs scented political blood.
Labour was a particular target, as Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte stood in at Opposition Leaders’ Questions.
Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary recalled broken election promises, claiming that many of those who voted for Labour rued their decision.
He quoted from Labour election pamphlets: Families Need Labour in Government, Protect Child Benefit – Vote Labour, A Cut Too Far – Fine Gael – Every Little Hurts.
Calleary, wondering about a Government U-turn, pressed the Minister to confirm that all the budget’s provisions would be included in next week’s Social Welfare Bill. The Labour benches were a heckle-free zone until veteran TD Emmet Stagg entered the fray. “Fianna Fáil will be joining United Left Alliance next.’’
Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen warned of electoral fallout for Labour. “Deputy Stagg should better start looking around him. He might be heading off into the sunset.”
While admitting the budget was difficult, Rabbitte pointed to the protection of social welfare rates and the pupil-teacher ratio, job creation, restoration of home help and said €500 million had been taken from the better off.
Rounding on his political tormentors, Rabbitte accused Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin of breaking with tradition by not seeking a Department of Finance evaluation of their pre-budget submissions.
“What tradition?’’ asked Cowen, brother of former taoiseach Brian Cowen.
It then got deeply personal. “If my name was Cowen, I would stay quiet in this debate,’’ said Rabbitte. Cowen replied: “There are no rabbits to be pulled from the hat here.” The Minister later returned to the chamber to withdraw the remark and express regret.
As criticism intensified, Rabbitte was upbeat. Thanks to the Irish people’s efforts, 85 per cent of the heavy lifting was behind us, he said.
He compared Fianna Fáil to a leopard that did not change its spots, adding that party leader Micheál Martin, “the Dalai Lama of Ballinlough’’, had helped negotiate the property tax.
The exchanges became more heated when Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald focused on the cut in the respite care grant. McDonald accused the Government of launching an attack on carers, some of whom were responsible for people with profound disabilities.
It has been a long and fraught week. Coalition back- benchers know next week will be equally long and fraught.