Targeting of pensioners causes latest Coalition rift
ANALYSIS:Policy differences between parties sharing power are to be expected. This latest is the eighth since June
EVEN IN single-party governments, there are mutinies and dissent. So it should come as no surprise that in coalition governmentsat least some of the policy and personality clashes will bubble up to the surface.
“There are two different political parties. If there is no tension there, there must be something fundamentally wrong,” is how Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin portrayed it several months ago.
However, the volume of public spats between Fine Gael and Labour has increased alarmingly over recent months, with hardly a week going by without leading members of both parties being at loggerheads.
The latest, this weekend, stemmed from an interview Fine Gael Minister of State for Finance Brian Hayes gave to The Irish Times on Saturday. He put forward his view that better-off pensioners should not be left untouched by the budgetary process. He based his argument on CSO statistics that showed the income levels for the over-65 cohort increased by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2010, in contrast to many people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who suffered income drops and often job losses.
“I’d say a lot of people would agree with him on a factual basis,” said a Fine Gael ministerial colleague. “But I don’t think there is much political appetite to cut pensions or free travel or anything like that.” And one person who certainly doesn’t seem to share Hayes’s political appetite is Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. On RTÉ’s The Week in Politics last night she volunteered comments on Hayes’s interview.
In what amounted to a public dressing-down, she said: “Why Minister Hayes would simply focus on richer pensioners, I’m not quite clear. He hasn’t had an opportunity to brief me on his view but they are his personal views.”
When an audit is done, we find eight rifts since June. These are:
1. Abortion: The Fine Gael parliamentary party demanded sight of the report being conducted by an expert group, recommending the best way to proceed legislatively or constitutionally with abortion. More than a dozen of its TDs said they would oppose any legislation. As many Labour TDs expressed the opposite view.
2. Increments: Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said the issue of continuing public service pay increments needed to be addressed. That led to a series of contradictory statements, culminating in Varadkar getting a mild slap on the wrists.
3. HSE: Minister for Health James Reilly was at the centre of a storm for not informing colleagues the HSE chief executive was stepping down.
4. Grant cuts: Backbenchers and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney stated their opposition to eligibility for student grants being tested on the basis of assets, including farms. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is considering such a move. The public dissenters were mildly admonished by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.
5. PRSI increases. Burton had suggested an increase in PRSI (including for employers) might be an option to deal with the gap in the social insurance fund. Hayes offered the view of many Fine Gael TDs that this might be a disincentive to job creation.
6. Child benefit: Different opinions emerged on means- testing for child benefit (unusually with splits within both parties).
7. Health cuts: More ructions over €160 million in health cuts, including to carers of disabled people. There was a rowback by Reilly but not before Labour TDs railed against the cuts.
8. The row this weekend between Burton and Hayes over his views that better-off pensioners should be asked to make a contribution.