The year of lost sparkle
At home, there were tensions between, and within, parties. The triple lock – no cuts in social welfare rates, no rise in income taxes, and the Croke Park agreement – left little room for manoeuvre for budgetary adjustment. A group among Fine Gael’s large new intake, known as the five-a-side, started questioning Government orthodoxy, especially on Croke Park.
And individuals within Government came under more searching scrutiny.
Without a doubt it was Minister for Health James Reilly who found himself in the most uncomfortable spotlight. Controversies dogged his year: the inclusion of two locations in his constituency; a priority list of primary care centres; being named in Stubbs Gazette; and questions being asked about his competence to manage the health portfolio in the light of huge HSE overruns.
Along the way he had to field a Dáil debate of no confidence and the fallout from the resignation of minister of state Róisín Shortall, of the Labour Party. In the long run her abrupt departure didn’t have long-term consequences for the Coalition. She got sympathy but no real support. But her criticism of Gilmore raised a question about his authority and sway that recurred more than once in 2012.
The other Minister who found himself at the centre of a storm was Phil Hogan over the poor handling of the €100 household charge. That allowed smaller parties and Sinn Féin to claim a victory in their campaigns against the charge. There were potential fault lines within the Coalition over abortion but the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in the late autumn focused minds on a workable compromise. That debate has yet to be played out.
Polls showed a growing disillusionment and disapproval with Government performance, as promises were broken or not fulfilled. The biggest potential stumbling block for the Coalition was the budget. Though the €3.5 billion adjustment was not the biggest in recent years, it was always going to involve severe cuts and taxes. Residual sympathy from the public ran dry over swingeing cuts to child benefit, PRSI exemptions and respite care grants. It led to the first major tensions within Cabinet.
Ultimately Labour blinked when Fine Gael faced down its demand for a 3 per cent increase in the Universal Social Charge for those earning more than €100,000. The alternative they agreed to – a tax package worth €500 million on the wealthy – was too complicated and unwieldy, and hard to explain.