Fine Gael stuck between a rock and a hard place

Wed, Nov 24, 2010, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Helping to pass budget could have disastrous consequences for the party that prides itself on putting country first, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE SOMBRE mood in the Dáil yesterday afternoon reflected the plight of the country. It was also a sign that the disarray in Government is posing a serious challenge for the Opposition parties. The spotlight will come on Fine Gael in particular and how it responds to the budget on December 7th will have a profound impact on the welfare of the country and its own long-term fortunes.

In the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen effectively repeated his plea to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore to let the budget pass in the national interest. In their questions yesterday the Opposition did not repeat their calls for a dissolution of the Dáil but instead they tried to tease out the logistics of the budget process without saying what they will do if the Government presses ahead as planned.

Insisting that his party will act constructively in the interests of Ireland, Kenny asked that the budget be brought forward to next week. He promised to facilitate the Government in arranging Dáil sittings from Monday to Friday between now and Christmas to get the measures enacted into law.

Cowen declined the offer, saying the budget timetable could not be changed for logistical reasons.

Gilmore sought to tease out how that timetable will work and pointed out that the Finance Bill to give effect to last year’s budget was not passed by the Dáil until the end of March this year. The Taoiseach again declined to give a firm timetable but said he expected it would be passed in February. That would result in an election in March at the earliest, considerably later than a date in the second half of January suggested by the Greens when they pulled the rug from under the Government on Monday.

The Opposition parties now have a lot of serious thinking about what to do next. Their options are to try and bring the Government down in the next week or to find some way of ensuring the budget is passed on December 7th. The defeat of the measure in the Dáil would result in the worst of all possible worlds.

The members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party had a serious discussion yesterday about what they should do in the weeks ahead. Afterwards TDs and Senators said the prevailing mood was serious and responsible with most speakers emphasising the need for the party to do what is right for the country.

“What is the right thing for the country? That is the question. Should we let the budget pass or try and force an immediate general election?” asked one TD later.

Kenny bought a little bit of time by telling the meeting that he intended to take up the Taoiseach’s offer and engage in discussions with the officials from the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank about the budget options facing the country. He will report back to his party colleagues tonight on how things have developed.

Fine Gael is in an invidious position. The party has always prided itself for its role in founding the State and taking difficult decisions to protect its institutions during occasional bouts of power. By contrast Fianna Fáil has endeared itself to the electorate and wielded power for much longer by taking a consistently populist line.

Fine Gael put party interest aside by adopting the Tallaght strategy and keeping a Fianna Fáil government in power between 1987 and 1989 while decisions to sort out the economy were taken. The party got little thanks from the electorate which instead rewarded Labour in 1990 and 1992 for its trenchant opposition to Charles Haughey.

More recently, Fine Gael supported the introduction of the bank guarantee in 2008, in the belief that it was in the national interest, while Labour opposed it from the beginning. While there is still intense debate about whether there was any real option for the country in the circumstances, Labour benefited in terms of popular support from taking a strongly hostile line from the beginning.

Gilmore has given every indication that Labour will oppose the budget on December 7th whatever happens. He has again questioned the need for a €6 billion adjustment despite the clear view of the EU and the IMF that such deep cuts are necessary. That view was repeated again yesterday by EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn who said it was essential that Ireland pass the budget.

The quandary for Fine Gael is that if the party votes against the budget further damage to the country will be the only outcome. On the other hand, if it allows the budget to pass the party will share some responsibility for the unpopular measures it contains. This will inevitably be exploited by Labour who are currently breathing down Fine Gael’s neck for the status of becoming the biggest party after the next election.

To make matters worse it is also possible that some Fianna Fáil TDs may revolt on the budget in a final ploy to save their seats. That would be a very bitter pill for their Fine Gael constituency rivals to swallow if they allowed the budget through in the national interest.

A number of Fine Gael TDs took an uncompromising attitude at their party meeting yesterday saying they simply could not vote for the budget. Kenny’s attitude in the Dáil yesterday indicated that the party will take a more nuanced approach when budget day arrives.

Not alone Ireland’s national interest but the future of the euro is in the balance and that is likely to sway Fine Gael TDs. Given the seriousness of the position the voters may even reward a party that is seen to put the country’s interests ahead of its own.