Second instalment of budget trilogy suits Fianna Fáil nicely
Party’s ire directed towards Sinn Féin and Independent Alliance rather than at Fine Gael
Fianna Fáil public expenditure spokesman Dara Calleary and its finance spokesman Michael McGrath. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Just as it is doing quite well out of the confidence and supply agreement in general, Fianna Fáil can feel it has done nicely from the second instalment of the minority Government’s budgetary trilogy.
After Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil circled each other as they tested the limits of the deal in the run up to its first budget last year, figures in both parties thought the second budget would be tougher again.
The available resources were expected to be corset tight, yet Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe greatly expanded the available resources through an increase in commercial stamp duty.
While negotiations between Donohoe and his opposite numbers in Fianna Fáil, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary, were no doubt hard fought over recent weeks, there was never a sense that the budget would not pass.
The mood music was likely helped by polls showing both main parties performing well, such as last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey putting Fine Gael on 31 per cent and Fianna Fáil on 29 per cent.
As it has done since it agreed to prop-up the Fine Gael-Independent Government, Fianna Fáil again sought to cast itself as doing the decent and honourable thing by the country.
In his Dáil speech on Tuesday, Calleary said the budget was an important day for “centre ground politics” and for “practical politicians”. The Mayo TD also took a sideswipe at the Independent Alliance and its tendency towards the dramatic in political negotiations.
“Some revel in creating drama where none exists – indeed there are members of the Government who see this as their main job,” he said.
McGrath, in attacking Sinn Féin, said it was “a lot easier to throw stones from the sidelines rather than going in and fighting your corner”.
Wrapping each other in the cloak of responsible politics is for now in the interests of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and Micheál Martin’s party can point to some tangible policy achievements on universal social charge (USC) reductions, the welfare package and spending on health and education.
Indeed, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shift of emphasis away from the USC and toward raising the threshold at which people enter the higher rate of income tax could suit Fianna Fáil’s desire to cast itself as the “progressive” centre ground party.
“By our influence this will be the second progressive budget in a row,” emphasised a senior Fianna Fáil source. “Fact.”
The party has also sought to claim credit for the confidence and supply deal’s stipulation that resources must be allocated on a 2:1 basis in favour of increased spending over tax cuts, but it is excessive to paint Fine Gael as rabid right-wingers tempered by social conscience from the opposition benches.
No matter what one party alleges of the other, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are close on most matters of policy: the simple fact that they have agreed their second budget is the obvious proof of that.
Fianna Fáil is doing well from the convergence for now, but it could cause trouble in future.
In his speech McGrath accurately said that the budget would be judged on the effect it had on the housing crisis more than in any other policy area.
Yet it is on this front that there is the most commonality between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, evidenced by the fact that almost all of the new policy initiatives announced by the Government had also been proposed by Barry Cowen, Martin’s housing spokesman.
Cowen had called for a new housing agency, increases to housing assistance payments, extra capital investment for social housing and moves to tackle land hoarding. All were delivered.
The Offaly TD has objected to the lack of measures in the budget to increase the supply of affordable housing but the Government says it cannot tell the market to build homes within a specific price range. Further moves on housing are expected in the 10-year capital investment plan due to be announced later this year.
The political rub for Fianna Fáil could come, however, if the Government’s housing polices – which are theirs too – are slow to make an impact.
In such a scenario the constraints of confidence and supply could begin to chafe.