Taoiseach rejects Fine Gael call to bring budget forward


Taoiseach Brian Cowen has refused a call by Fine Gael to bring the budget forward by two weeks.

The Taoiseach announced last night there will be a general election early in the new year once the provisions of the budget have been enacted. His decision to dissolve the Dáil came in response to an announcement by Green Party leader John Gormley hours earlier that his party wanted an election in the second half of January.

The budget is due to be delivered by Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan on December 7th. The Government will also publish its four-year plan to cut the deficit to 3 per cent of GDP by 2014 tomorrow.

During Leaders' Questions in the Dáil today, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said his party would act constructively in the interests of the State, adding he would accept Mr Cowen's invitation to meet officials from the IMF, EU, and ECB.

However, he also called on Mr Cowen, in the interests of stability, to bring forward the budget to next week, with a "slimmed down" version of the Finance Bill to be put through with the key aspects of the budget.

"I will facilitate the House sitting from Monday to Friday until all of that has been completed through the legislative process by Christmas. This will bring some measure of certainty to a Government that is out of control," the Fine Gael leader said.

"It seems . . . there is an ongoing attempt to cling to power at all costs," Mr Kenny said. "At this time of crisis, what this country needs is confidence and stability. It has neither at the moment."

The Taoiseach said there was "no question" of clinging to power being his motivation. "My sole motivation is to ensure a four-year plan is published . . . and that a budget is passed by the House," he said, adding EU commissioner Ollie Rehn did not want to see the budgetary process drifting into next year.

EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn said today it was "essential" that Ireland passes the budget sooner rather than later. ''Let's get it out of the way and let's move on,'' he said in Strasbourg, where he met Irish MEPs.

Referring to rescue talks last week, Mr Cowen said; "I refuted specific reports last weekend when they were put to me - which were untrue at the time. . .  I was very anxious to ensure that I represented the taxpayers, I represented the people of this country, and that we made sure what the parameters of any discussion would be."

He said the importance of the 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate was one of those parameters established for the talks. “I believe that there will be support for this budget,” he said. “I thank everyone for the calm and considered manner in which we’ve had this discussion.”

Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said he was concerned the budgetary process could be prolonged until next March. “I don’t think it is in our interest that we have a three to four month period of instability, of doubt, of lack of clarity,” he said.

Pressure is continuing on Mr Cowen from within his own party. A group of backbench Fianna Fáil TDs dissatisfied with Mr Cowen's leadership was meeting today to discuss “a strategy in relation to a motion of no confidence” in him.

Carlow Kilkenny TD John McGuinness said a number of TDs would be holding talks separately from tonight’s meeting of the wider parliamentary party. If a strategy was agreed, it would take a week for a motion to be heard.

Despite the rumblings from the backbenches, it is not thought the rebels will have sufficient support to oust Mr Cowen.

Mr Lenihan and Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey both backed Mr Cowen this morning and insisted he will lead the party into the next election. “Brian Cowen has my full support now and into the next election,” Mr Dempsey said.

Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin said there was no indication of a serious heave against Taoiseach Brian Cowen and she would have no part in it if there were. However, she would throw her hat in the ring if the parliamentary party wanted her to. That would only happen if there was a vacancy, she said. "That could be a long way down the road.”

Tonight, however, Longford-Westmeath TD Mary O'Rourke told a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party there should be a special meeting on the leadership in the new year and that people should have the chance to "throw their hats in the ring".

Sinn Féin announced this afternoon it had tabled a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach.

This morning, Mr Dempsey insisted the EU-IMF rescue deal for Ireland hinges on the publication of the four-year plan and the passing of the budget. "We don't have the luxury of time in relation to this," Mr Dempsey said. “We asked for assistance, we were given that assistance on the basis that we were going to produce this four-year plan, that we were going to produce a budget, and that that budget would pass."

Speaking on his way into a Cabinet meeting this morning, Mr Lehihan said passing the budget is vital. “We need to pass this budget, we need to publish this plan tomorrow, which we will doing,” he said. “The plan has been finalised, the budget will be introduced and the necessary funding will be obtained. They’re the priorities for this country at present.”

Late last night, Mr Cowen phoned Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore to offer to make available to them the financial advice underpinning the Government’s proposed budget.

While the Taoiseach made no direct request to Mr Kenny or Mr Gilmore to help him get the budget through the Dáil, his phone calls to them signalled the first move in a strategy to persuade the Opposition to let the budget pass.

It is understood, however, that both Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore told the Fianna Fáil leader they wanted to see an immediate dissolution of the Dáil with an election before rather than after the budget.

This morning, Mr Dempsey said the purpose of the contacts was to inform the Opposition leaders and allow them the opportunity “to see the books”.

Given the timescale involved, it would not be possible to have a general election prior to the budget, he said. "The proper thing for the Opposition to do is put the country first, put aside politics as usual and get on with this business,” he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.

Fine Gael health spokesman James Reilly said his party could not give a guarantee on passing the budget until they had seen it. "When we see the budget if the budget meets with all the requirements that we have, that's a different matter," he said.