The political season

Wed, Sep 18, 2013, 01:00

The referendum to abolish the Seanad may appear to be the prime focus of the new Dáil session, but the attention of most TDs has already fixed on next month’s budget as its effects will influence the outcome of the local and European elections. In the words of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the budget promises to be “the last of the really tough ones” and both Fine Gael and Labour Party politicians want to minimise any negative impact.

Comments from senior politicians in both parties suggest the adjustment target will be set at less than €3.1 billion. How much less will depend on tax, growth and national accounts figures. In that context, planning for a primary budget surplus is seen as adequate reassurance for the financial markets as the State prepares to exit its bailout programme. Whatever figure is finally agreed – and in spite of improving economic conditions – further cutbacks and tax increases are inevitable.

Although the referendum is not in the forefront of minds at present, a shock defeat would change all that. It would exacerbate divisions in Fine Gael and provide a significant fillip for Fianna Fáil, the only major party that formally campaigned against abolition. Coming immediately before an unpopular budget, it could shake the Coalition to its foundations and focus attention on the leaderships of Mr Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore.

The Taoiseach is already circling the wagons. Not alone did he declare his intention to lead Fine Gael into an election in 2016, he offered those who remained loyal the prospects of promotion or forgiveness. It was a triple whammy, delivered in an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. He wasn’t going away: a Cabinet reshuffle was coming and those who forfeited the whip could stand in future elections as loyal party members. Lucinda Creighton’s name wasn’t mentioned. It didn’t have to be. The message was unambiguous: there was no room for Reform Alliance within Fine Gael.

Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton emphasised their good working relationship. Both know a leadership challenge may come in the aftermath of local elections, if party support fails to recover. Free GP care for the under-fives is unlikely to change that. Jobs are being created, but not quickly enough to avoid cuts in welfare spending. Dáil reforms have limited electoral appeal. The constitutional convention proposed changes, including one favouring same-sex marriage. Those issues could be addressed through referendums, in tandem with the elections. But Fine Gael is not committed to a referendum on same-sex marriage and Mr Kenny is unlikely to be enthusiastic. However, Micheál Martin has spoken in favour of liberalisation, as has Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. The issue could enliven the Dáil session.