Settling party nerves

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

FOR PARTY leaders in government, pre-Dáil conferences are all about settling nerves and reassuring worried backbenchers that, if they maintain discipline and support difficult cabinet decisions, their chances of getting re-elected will improve.

Of course, life is not always like that and Fine Gael and Labour TDs are uncomfortably aware that governments lose support during a recession.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny had little difficulty in persuading Fine Gael backbenchers they were facing into a critical economic period. But he offered light at the end of the tunnel and suggested this Dáil session would be “the toughest in the lifetime of the Government”.

Just how fraught it was likely to be was reflected by his announcement that, in order to focus Ministerial attention (and maintain discipline) there would be no Cabinet reshuffle.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was less assured in advocating retrenchment while Labour TDs and Senators were less committed to implementing the bailout programme. Cuts in health services – since reversed – had unnerved them and pressure was building within their constituencies.

Internal politicking saw three Senators boycott the conference because it was held in a five-star hotel. And MEP Nessa Childers forecast a party split as a group of activists launched an anti-austerity campaign. Such tensions and disagreements are not uncommon within the Labour Party but their full-blown development so early in the lifetime of this Government suggests inherent instability.

Despite rumblings of dissent, Mr Gilmore and Mr Kenny pledged the Government would run its full term; renegotiate the burden of bank debt within the EU; generate employment and return the economy to solid growth. Mr Gilmore was particularly concerned that budgetary negotiations in Cabinet should remain confidential during the coming months, so as not to upset the public and his backbenchers unnecessarily.

A similar – keep them in the dark for as long as possible – approach was taken by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald in relation to the referendum on children’s rights. The referendum, promised by successive governments, will finally be held in the autumn. But the wording will not be formally agreed until the Government meets next week.

Ms Fitzgerald insisted everything was “on track” and there would be plenty of time to explain to the electorate precisely what was involved. She also anticipated opposition to the referendum and that legal experts would speak out against it. In that context, the delay in publishing a wording would appear to be deliberate and tactical.

As if the €3.5 billion adjustment required by the troika in the December budget was not enough, the Fiscal Advisory Council suggested an additional €1.9 billion in savings should be found by 2015. As gas and electricity prices rise and a property tax is being prepared, Ministers are unlikely to entertain the more extreme cutbacks suggested by the International Monetary Fund. A move in that direction could bring a backbench revolt.