Lenihan and Opposition reach deal on Finance Bill


Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and Opposition parties this evening announced a deal has been reached on a timetable for passing the Finance Bill.

Under the agreement, all business in the Dáil will be cleared this week for discussing the Finance Bill, from tomorrow through to Thursday. The Seanad will then sit on Friday and Saturday to ensure the Bill is passed.

The talks follow the decision of the Green Party yesterday to pull out of Government.

Speaking after the meetings, Mr Lenihan said Opposition motions of confidence in the Government have now been deferred until Tuesday week.

“I think it’s a good day's work, and it is important for the country that we are seen to unite at least in dealing with this measure,” he said.

The Minister said he would have preferred a fortnight to discuss the Bill but that once Opposition parties had cleared all other Dáil business, it was feasible to pass it under the time frame agreed.

Mr Lenihan said he drafted the Bill “in haste” and he was anxious a minimum period of reflection be given to debating it. Mr Lenihan said he is satisfied that has now been provided, although provisions within the Bill, such as those on civil partnership, will fall by the wayside as they are “very complex”.

Mr Lenihan refused to be drawn on the date of the impending election but said it would be in late February. It is considered most likely to take place on February 25th.

In a short statement this evening, the Minister welcomed the agreement of the timetable and thanked the Greens, Fine Gael and Labour for their "constructive" approach. Mr Lenihan today hosted delegations from those parties and Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael and Labour wanted a commitment that the Bill will be passed by next Friday, but Mr Lenihan had suggested that it will not be possible to get it through the Dáil until the following Wednesday.

In a statement after the talks Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said the party remains “strongly opposed” to major provisions of the Finance Bill.

“All we have agreed with the other parties is a timetable for debate in the Dáil, we will table amendments in the normal way and call votes as appropriate,” he added.

Labour had threatened to proceed with a motion of no confidence in the Government if there is not an unequivocal commitment that the Finance Bill would be enacted and the Dáil dissolved by Friday. This morning, Mr Lenihan said he was open to considering Opposition amendments to the Bill and denied Fianna Fáil was stalling on bringing forward a date for the general election.

The Opposition parties are still threatening to move motions of no confidence in the Taoiseach and the Government if they are not satisfied with the timetable for the Bill and the general election.

Speaking afterwards Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty accused both Fine Gael and Labour of “engaging in political fraud”

Mr Doherty said both parties “buckled and agreed to extend the life of the Government for one more week to pass a Finance Bill which they both claim to oppose.”

Ahead of the talks, Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan said his party may consider extending its deadline beyond Friday if Mr Lenihan can give a "valid" reason. “But all our information, from very high levels, in the Revenue and in the Civil Service, suggests that there is no legal, technical or constitutional reason why the Friday deadline can’t be met and the considerations which are preventing it from being met are political,” he said.

Labour finance spokeswoman Joan Burton said that if the election was not brought forward, her party would keep the confidence motion in the Government on the table.

Ms Burton said her party had never accepted the claim by Fianna Fáil that it would not be possible to have the Bill dealt with by the Dáil in one week. She has proposed a timetable of 26 hours of debate, saying it would enable the legislation to pass all stages in the Oireachtas by Friday, with the Dáil dissolved on Saturday and a general election called for February.

On his way out of the talks after they were halted for a break this evening, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty claimed his party was asked to leave the meeting after lashing out over proposals to put the Bill through the Dáil rather hold an immediate election.

“What is happening in the Department of Finance is nothing short of disgusting,” he said. “It is the consensus of cuts all over again where the Labour Party and Fine Gael and the Green Party are supporting the Government to introduce the Finance Bill by Saturday.” He said his party would not be returning to the talks.

"No, we won’t be going back into discussions because what they are actually doing is dotting the Is and crossing the Ts in this grubby little deal and we want no more to do about it."

This morning, Mr Lenihan accused the Opposition of wanting a “walkover election” and insisted the Government could not be pushed into an election regardless of issues with the Bill.

“I know we’re a minority Government. We need to get with enacting legislation surrounding the Finance Bill. Practical matters will be sorted out at this meeting today, and I will consider any constructive amendments proposed by the Opposition,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland .

Former minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin said today the finalisation of the Bill was vital to ensure an orderly transition for the next Government. “All of the issues will have to be legislated for and resolved," he told Cork's 96FM. "I think it would be a huge boost to the next Government if the Finance Bill was out of the way in terms of meeting those quarterly targets that have been set down in terms of the drawn down of money from Europe.”

He added that “an awful lot of heavy lifting has been done for the next Government” in terms of both the four year plan and the budgetary decisions that have been taken.

Earlier, Green Party Senator Dan Boyle said his party wanted the Bill passed as soon as possible. "That is needed for economic certainty; it is needed for economic stability, and that will be done in a matter of days,” he told Cork's 96FM. “Whether it is done this Friday, whether it is done the following Wednesday it shouldn't matter too much. This Finance Bill can be passed in a few days. That is the priority for us. I think anything to do with a vote of confidence is an utter irrelevance."

The decision of the Greens to pull out of Coalition followed the announcement by Taoiseach Brian Cowen on Saturday that he was stepping down as leader of Fianna Fáil. Mr Cowen said he made the decision based on his own assessment of the implications for him and his party of his failed attempt to reshuffle the Cabinet last Thursday. He said he had spoken to his wife, Mary, and family before making the decision, adding that he had not been in touch with any senior member of the party about the issue.