Brexit, budget and FG-FF deal set to dominate Dáil autumn session
Housing crisis, health budget overruns and limited fiscal space among challenges
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
The Dáil will resume today with little prospect of a general election in the near future but with a heightened sense of tension among TDs over three looming events that will dominate the autumn session – Brexit; the October budget; and the end of the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Eoghan Murphy has been hardly more than a year as Minister for Housing but he must now fully realise why Simon Coveney departed so quickly. Murphy announced a review of Coveney’s Rebuilding Ireland strategy but his reforms (announced piecemeal) have not made the required impact – indeed, in some areas the crises have deteriorated alarmingly rather than improving.
Next Tuesday, Murphy will have to face a no-confidence motion from Sinn Féin. The result is a foregone conclusion as Fianna Fáil has already indicated it will support the Government. Nonetheless it will give Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin, a chance to lambast both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Murphy’s latest initiative is the Land Development Agency, promising 150,000 houses over 20 years. The idea is to use public lands for private developments that will include 40 per cent social and affordable housing. But there have been grandiose plans before with big numbers of units that have just not been delivered.
The trigger for the no-confidence motion was the latest homeless figures of almost 10,000 (up 20 per cent year on year) and the case of Margaret Nash, who slept with her children in the waiting room of a Garda station.
Paschal Donohoe’s second budget comes on the back of a steady economy and very low unemployment figures. As such he has some scope for manoeuvre but has been very careful during the summer months to dampen expectations on spending. The budget will allow him up to €3.4 billion but already some €2.6 billion of that has already been committed, leaving him spending room of less than €1 billion.
He had committed to a rainy-day fund, with a likelihood of increases in carbon tax and with perhaps some small reduction in personal taxes. The VAT rate of 9 per cent for the hospitality industry may be looked at in addition to his review of the property tax charging system. Among the demands of Fianna Fáil are a €200 million fund for affordable housing as well as a €5 increase in the State pension.
Confidence and supply
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wrote a letter to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin during the summer looking for a two-year extension to the confidence-and-supply agreement. Martin was unhappy with the unsolicited offer and will not discuss any new agreement until the current one comes to an end at budget time. At this stage it does not look likely that the agreement will be extended for two years but it could remain in operation for another year. With recent poll figures, Varadkar is in a stronger position to call an election.
A big theme for autumn but the main event will be in the UK on September 20th when the Tory party holds its conference. If Theresa May gets her way there is a chance of a negotiated Brexit happening relatively shortly after the deadline on March 29th, 2019. The initiative by the European Union to “dedramatise” the Irish border and backstop impasse might involve some compromise for the Government, with suggestions of barcodes on freight that will allow registered companies with “trusted trader” status to move goods with new new checks at any border.
Minister for Health Simon Harris will have his hands full this autumn. His most immediate problems include the overrun in the health budget, as well as a debate this week on the Scally report into the cervical check scandal. In October, he is also expected to bring abortion legislation to the House, now that all the legal challenges have been exhausted.