Policies at risk if Coalition becomes complacent

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

INSIDE POLITICS: THE COALITION was entitled to give itself a little pat on the back after its first year in office but both parties in Government need to watch themselves because ominous signs of complacency are already beginning to emerge.

The storm over the promissory note payment due at the end of this month is a direct result of indiscipline in the Cabinet which has left the Government facing a potential own goal at the start of the referendum campaign on the fiscal treaty.

Immediately after the referendum was announced, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore were adamant that the terms of the promissory note payment to cover the bank bailout was an entirely separate issue from the fiscal treaty and the two could not be linked.

However, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton proceeded to give an interview to the Financial Times making a direct link between the two issues. Despite attempts by colleagues to explain away her comments she compounded the damage by repeating them in an interview with The Irish Times.

The net result was to hand the No campaigners a stick with which to beat the Government if the promissory note issue is not sorted before the referendum. The fulsome endorsement of Burton by South Dublin TD Shane Ross in the Sunday Independent only confirmed to her colleagues how far the Minister had strayed from the Government line.

At this stage it is impossible to know when and if the Irish bank debt terms will be eased. It is almost inevitable that there will be an easing at some stage but whether it happens by the end of this month or in time for the referendum at the end of May is a moot point.

One way or another Burton has given a massive hostage to the No side. She has also fuelled the prejudices of die-hard Europhobes who have peddled the notion for four decades that Europe is some kind of conspiracy designed to rob us in one way or another.

The exact opposite is of course the truth. Without the huge transfers of more than

€42 billion from the European Union since 1973 Ireland would be an acutely underdeveloped economy with sparse infrastructure, minimal foreign investment and subsistence agriculture.

The latest report from the European Court of Auditors shows that in 2010 Ireland was still a net beneficiary from the EU to the tune of €676 million, despite the fact that our living standards are now above the EU average.

The defeat of the referendum on the fiscal treaty would not only have huge consequences for the country but it would also be extremely damaging for the Coalition and could even herald the demise of the Government. It should not be forgotten that the loss of the first Lisbon referendum was a blow from which Brian Cowen and his coalition never recovered.

On the Fine Gael side of the Coalition South Dublin TD Peter Mathews is the loose cannon on issues to do with the EU and the banking crisis. Taoiseach Enda Kenny had to summon the errant TD to his office for a dressing down at the ungodly hour of 6.30am last Thursday. It following a chaotic meeting of the finance committee the night before at which a motion tabled by Mathews was carried with the backing of the Opposition against the wishes of the Government.

Mathews actually voted against his own motion summoning the governor of the Central Bank Patrick Honohan to appear at the committee before the end of this month but it was his action in tabling it that led to the defeat. In his Dáil speeches he regularly strays far from Government policy and his views appear to be more compatible with those of Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty than Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

So far he has not followed the logic of his position and voted against the Government but how long a TD so clearly at odds with his own party’s position can remain within the fold is a topic of discussion in Leinster House. One way or another, though, the views of Burton and Mathews will do nothing to help the Coalition persuade the public to approve the fiscal treaty.

The treaty is not the only issue on which the Coalition is beginning to look a bit frayed. The handling of the household charge has been inept to date and, even more worryingly, there is no sign that the Government has the capacity to adapt its approach despite growing signs that its strategy is about to end in abject failure. Since the beginning of January it has been apparent that there are huge problems about getting a majority of people to pay the €100 charge. The anti-tax campaigners can take the credit or blame for some of that but a large portion of it is due to the unnecessarily complicated methods of payment devised by the Department of the Environment.

Huge swathes of the population simply have no idea how to go about paying the charge, even if they want to, and for that the department has to take responsibility. It is as if the system has been devised to make it as difficult as possible for people to pay. Unless there is a dramatic change of tack in the next couple of weeks and forms are dispatched to every household in the country there is little prospect that a majority of people will pay the charge. That will be a serious embarrassment for the Government and it could do serious damage to the prospect of introducing a comprehensive property tax in 2013.

The worrying aspect of the matter is that nobody in Government appears very concerned at the way its policy looks like going down in flames. Complacency on that scale could prove fatal.

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