Noel Whelan: ‘Prime Time’ farce shows Fianna Fáil’s peculiar stance
The party wants to negotiate the budget in private and act as Opposition on TV
Prime Time editors decided they couldn’t and shouldn’t stage a head-to-head budget night-debate between Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, above, and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. Photograph: Alan Betson
There was one small detail in the deluge of print and broadcast coverage following this week’s budget which illustrates the novel political context in which this budget was framed, and in which it is subsequently being debated.
RTÉ, like all broadcasters, is required by law to present matters of public controversy in an objective and impartial manner and to give a fair airing to both sides of a political issue or argument.
For decades, RTÉ has done this on budget night by staging a head-to-head debate on its main current affairs programme between the minister for finance who announced the budget, and the finance spokesperson of the main opposition party who would robustly criticise the budget.
This year Prime Time editors decided they couldn’t and shouldn’t stage a head-to-head budget-night debate between Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath. It wouldn’t be informative or interesting television. It wouldn’t advance both sides of the argument about the budget. Indeed the programme makers would have been exposing themselves to ridicule for staging the facade of two men who largely agreed on the budget begging to differ about it for the cameras. Anyone watching the Fianna Fáil contributions to the Dáil debate on Tuesday could see the difficulty Prime Time would have been in. While taking issue with some elements of the budget, McGrath and other Fianna Fáil spokespersons largely welcomed the budget measures and of course claimed responsibility for some of the more eye-catching initiatives.
In advance of budget day Prime Time made it known to the parties that the traditional format would not apply and instead proposed a head-to-head debate between Noonan and Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty as the spokesman for the largest party actually opposing the budget.
Fianna Fáil was furious. They argued that by virtue of being the largest party not in Government they were the ones who should provide the counterweight to public debate with the Government on the budget. It also seems that Michael Noonan, in the spirit of the political comradery which had developed with Michael McGrath as they tic-tacked over budgetary arrangements in recent weeks, declined RTÉ’s offer to debate with Sinn Féin. Noonan argued that, notwithstanding new politics, Prime Time should stick with the traditional Fine-Gael-versus-Fianna-Fáil format. It seems, in fact, that Noonan initially indicated he would not make himself available for the programme at all otherwise.
On formPrime Time then planned a format without Noonan, involving a wider panel in which, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Ruth Coppinger AAA-PBP, Independent, Denis Naughten and some Fine Gael Minister would participate. Noonan ultimately relented and agreed late on Tuesday to join the broader line-up. He need not have feared. In a week when he was very much on form in his media appearances, Noonan was more than able for Doherty and the other Opposition speakers.
The configurations of a particular Prime Time panel is not significant in itself but it is a moment which illustrates prominently the peculiar and precarious position Fianna Fáil now finds itself in. It seeks to exercise its mandate and grow its support by simultaneously claiming credit for having shaped policy on some aspects of Government action, and yet wants to be seen to lead the Opposition to that Government. Fianna Fáil wants to negotiate the budget in private with the Government in meeting rooms, but at the same time wants to front the Opposition to it in TV studios. Then TDs want to do no more than abstain on that which they oppose in the Dáil chamber.
They are of course entitled to do so and, although it is a gamble, they may even politically benefit from it. They cannot, however, expect broadcasters to indulge them in so doing.
It is not the media’s function to facilitate a faux debate between the two parties when on the central issues, of this budget and much else, they are essentially now in agreement.
If we currently had a government with sufficient political capacity and a working and fresh mandate this, as its first budget, could have been a transformative event, restructuring social priorities, shoring up our economic and fiscal defences against Brexit fallout and preparing for the pressures demographic changes will put on our public services.
Limited but importantWe don’t have such a government so this budget could do no more than tinker with a limited fiscal space. Within those confines the Government managed to give something small to everyone. They also managed to shape limited but important initiatives for first-time homebuyers and for many parents working or wanting to work outside the home who face crippling childcare costs. Above all else, they survived their first big political test by getting the budget passed.
The budget was as good as could have been expected in the circumstances, or at least in the circumstances Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have decided they should be.