A decent mix of commitment and aspiration


THE REAL policy battles between Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats took place during the general election campaign when, under considerable pressure, Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney negotiated a series of joint policy statements.

The icing on the cake has now arrived in the shape of an "Action Programme for the New Millennium". Neatly gift wrapped, after six short negotiating sessions between the parties, the 27 page government programme is a decent mix of specific commitments and political aspirations. But there is little that is innovative.

The document went down a treat at a packed meeting of the Fianna Fail Parliamentary Party yesterday. And last night the general council of the Progressive Democrats endorsed its provisions.

Chanting the mantra "economic circumstances permitting", the two parties have committed themselves to a minimum tax cutting programme of £1,500 million over five years, with an upward ceiling of about £2,000 million.

It doesn't give the Progressive Democrats all they wanted. But the tax undertakings end up a considerable distance beyond Fianna Fail's starting point, especially in relation to the 48 per cent rate.

The top tax rate will be cut to 42 per cent over five years (40 per cent, economic circumstances permitting) and the standard rate will be reduced to 20 per cent on the same basis. Similar qualifications hedge a widening of the standard rate tax band to include 80 per cent of taxpayers over five years. And a standard corporation tax rate of 10 per cent is to be in place by 2010.

A commitment to "start reducing" PRSI charges and the income and employment levies reflects Fianna Fail's policy of caution, rather than the Progressive Democrats proposal for their abolition. But the smaller party has got its way with a proposal to have the private sector build and lease new prisons to the State. There has been much give and take in general terms.

In the fraught political circumstances, Mary Harney has done well. And Bertie Ahern has invested heavily in the survival of the new partnership by honouring all commitments entered into during the election campaign.

He went further yesterday, at a meeting of his parliamentary party, by making space for the Progressive Democrats to assert themselves. Fianna Fail Mr Ahern told his TDs and Senators, will continue to develop party policies in government and to take advice from outside groups. It is a startling concept for Fianna Fail, a party which has tended to shun written policies, even in opposition.

But last night all was revealed. Mary Harney encouraged her followers with an announcement that all aspects of party affairs, in eluding organisation, policy and image, will be evaluated in the coming months by a "renewal committee".

The Progressive Democrats will be rebuilt, she promised, as had happened alter its setback in 1989. Ms Harney made no attempt to disguise the "devastating election result on June 6th", which sent her back to the Dail with only three other TDs, but the task ahead is to rebuild and revitalise the party in advance of next year's local elections. There is no question of absorption by Fianna Fail, she insists.

A junior party flexing its muscles, within a minority coalition government, is a sure source of tension. But both Mr Ahern and Ms Harney have already allowed for differences of opinion and policy in the years ahead.

Both have spoken of five years of stable government of trust add partnership and of their good personal relationship. The chemistry and the desire for survival is certainly there.

Northern Ireland is listed as a "key priority" and the immediate task is seen as a restoration of the IRA ceasefire. An eventual political settlement, the document says, would be based on "the principle of consent", parity of esteem, equality of treatment, a Bill of Rights, new policing structures and effective North/South bodies.

But while Mary Harney is insisting that progress could not "be held hostage by the republican movement", and that Sinn Fein must unequivocally choose one road or the other, Mr Ahern is holding the door ajar.