The budget, Brexit and abortion loom over new Dáil term

Leo Varadkar has had a quiet start to his stint as Taoiseach – that's about to change

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe: big challenges ahead. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe: big challenges ahead. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The autumn political term begins in earnest at Leinster House today when the Dáil meets for a parliamentary session that will run up to Christmas and see far-reaching decisions made on the budget, Brexit and abortion.

By the standards of the job, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has enjoyed relative quietude in his early months in office.

The only real political scrap was at the very beginning of his term, over the nomination of the former attorney general Máire Whelan as a judge of the Court of Appeal – a job bequeathed to him (probably with some relish) by his predecessor, Enda Kenny. Fianna Fáil objected but Varadkar ended the controversy quickly and firmly, brushing aside Micheál Martin’s concerns and steamrollering the appointment through.

No doubt such decisiveness will have its place in the coming political term, too.

But negotiating the pitfalls of the coming months will also call for guile and patience, knowing when to pull back as well as when to push forward. A complex set of issues and problems awaits the still new Taoiseach and his Government – an administration that, let us not forget, depends on the co-operation and consent of others to survive.

That remains the most important political fact about this coalition: its minority status.

Taxing dilemma

In three weeks’ time, Paschal Donohoe will deliver his first budget as Minister for Finance, and for Public Expenditure.

Before he does so, he and his boss will have to bridge the gap that opened with Fianna Fáil yesterday. The confidence and supply agreement between the two parties stipulates that there should be reductions in the USC for low and middle income earners. Donohoe and Varadkar have clearly flagged their preference for raising the entry point for the top rate of tax.

In Monday’s interview with The Irish Times, the Taoiseach did so again.

But Fianna Fáil says it will insist on the USC cuts previously agreed. Furthermore the party says that it will not be possible to do both the higher rate and the USC cut – and on the Government’s current budget numbers, Fianna Fáil is probably right. If the Government wants to stretch these numbers or alter the package, it will have to get Fianna Fáil’s agreement.

At the moment there’s no sign that will be forthcoming.

Of course, budget wrangling suits the two big parties to the extent that it ensures they dominate political exchanges for several weeks. But a phoney war is a risky business; it carries the constant danger of something happening by accident.

Housing and health

The budget will consume the machine of Government for the coming weeks, but it’s hardly the only item in the in-tray.

Housing and health remain the two most pressing policy concerns. In both areas there is a political imperative for the Government to show progress in meeting obvious pressures. Yet neither lends itself to quick fixes; in both areas the solutions – obvious and otherwise – are mostly medium to long term. The resultant pressure will become apparent as this term proceeds. It will be evident tonight when the Government opposes a Dáil bid to include the right to housing in the Constitution.

The committee on the eighth amendment meets today and has an intensive, fractious three months ahead of it. By year’s end, the committee will have made its recommendations and the Government – if it wishes to keep its word on an early referendum – will have decided on what’s next.

A referendum, yes – but what referendum?

Brexit and the Border

In October European leaders will decide whether the progress of the Brexit negotiations is sufficient to advance to the second phase – where decisions about the future trade relationship, and therefore the Irish Border, will be taken. Few believe the talks are ready for the next step, heightening the uncertainty for Ireland.

In November the main parties will gather for their conferences. The party leadership will be an issue only at the Sinn Féin ardfheis, where Gerry Adams has said he will set a timetable for his departure.

Otherwise, the gatherings of the faithful will function as pre-election rallies.

Despite a palpable lack of public interest in the prospect, the spectre of a general election will be ever-present.

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