Stephen Collins: Centre-ground of Irish politics more robust than expected

But could it withstand a serious economic downturn post-Brexit?

Enda Kenny and Michael Martin: A minority Government utterly dependant for its survival on the main Opposition party has emerged from the perils of the budget process with its prospects of survival enhanced rather than diminished. Photograph:  Maxpix/Julien Behal

Enda Kenny and Michael Martin: A minority Government utterly dependant for its survival on the main Opposition party has emerged from the perils of the budget process with its prospects of survival enhanced rather than diminished. Photograph: Maxpix/Julien Behal

 

It was one of the strangest budget days anybody in politics can remember. There was no vote in the Dáil on the night, no protests in the streets outside and no surprises in the budget itself.

Politically it worked like a dream. A minority Government utterly dependant for its survival on the main Opposition party has emerged from the perils of the budget process with its prospects of survival enhanced rather than diminished.

Whether the budget is the appropriate measure for the economy in the present uncertain circumstances is another thing. Reputable economists believe the safer option would have been a neutral budget, rather than the modest €1.3 billion giveaway, but that would have been political suicide.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is fond of saying that politics is the art of the possible and he has again proved himself a master of that art. Back in the spring, following an utterly indecisive election outcome, few thought that not alone would he still be Taoiseach on budget day but that the measure would sail through the Dáil without a hitch.

It was striking that both of the Ministers responsible for the budget, Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe, as well as Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath, cited the obverse of Yeats’s famous line that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

All of them asserted the budget had demonstrated the opposite; that the centre had held in the face of the potential chaos that could easily have been unleashed by the election outcome.

The budget is proof that the centre-ground of Irish politics is more robust and imaginative than might have been expected with the confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as well as the involvement of a number of Independents in Government, being seen to work.

One amusing demonstration of this was Noonan’s response to the attempt by RTÉ to exclude Fianna Fáil from the Prime Time budget night discussion and restrict it to a joust between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

Outrage

There was outrage in Fianna Fáil but they needn’t have worried as Noonan let RTÉ know he had no intention of being party to the exclusion of the main Opposition party.

Asked at his budget night press conference why he had taken this line, Noonan replied: “I need Michael McGrath more than I need Miriam O’Callaghan.”

The level of trust that has been established between the Ministers responsible for the budget and their opposite numbers in Fianna Fáil doesn’t mean that all was plain sailing in the run-up to the budget or that there will be general accord in its aftermath.

There was a lot of manoeuvring for political advantage between Fine Gael, the various Independents and Fianna Fáil in the weeks before the budget with all of them trying to show more concern with fairness than the other.

The public nature of the exchanges was something new to the budget process but that is not necessarily a bad thing, even if some of the carry-on was preposterous. It would obviously have been better to have had a more structured public discussion about what the proportion of available resources should go to spending increases rather than tax cuts and how much money should be channelled to pensioners or young families.

That should happen next year when the budget scrutiny committee gets into its stride. It will be a real test of whether the “new politics” is capable of changing the way Dáil business is done for the better.

One of the features of the pre-budget manoeuvring was the attempt by all sides to out-do each other in claiming their commitment to fairness.

Micheál Martin’s great achievement in the general election was to convince voters that his party was more for fairness than either Fine Gael or Labour. The detail of the various party manifestos did not bear this out but Fianna Fáil won the perception battle and that was what counted.

In fact, the fine print of the budget documentation shows that we have one of the most redistributive tax and welfare systems in the world. You wouldn’t think this listening to the budget debate with TDs of all sides ignoring the facts to suit their arguments.

The danger is that a political debate focused almost solely on who is more committed to public spending has tended to drown out a reasoned debate on how the revenue to pay for all the worthy programmes undertaken by the State is to be raised.

Extended

There is a strong argument to be made that instead of cutting the universal social charge (USC) it should be extended to take in more people. Similarly, instead of being abolished, water charges should be retained and streamlined. The problem is that nobody in Irish politics wants to face up to the fact that more spending requires more tax.

This is something that should be stressed in the impeding conflict between the Government and some of the most powerful public sector unions who are trying to grab an outsized share of extra resources for themselves.

This will be a real test of the Government’s resolve and an even bigger test for Fianna Fáil. If the main Opposition parties lines up with the more militant public service unions, as some of its TDs would clearly like, the political accord that underpinned the budget could dissolve very quickly.

Assuming they overcome that hurdle, an even bigger challenge to the new politics will come if the country is hit by a serious economic downturn in the wake of Brexit. Can the centre hold if there is an enforced return to austerity? That is the question.