The Irish Times view on the Dáil’s return: Government feels the heat

Fine Gael occupies the hot seat and is under pressure with election on horizon

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe ditched Varadkar’s promise to cut tax rates.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe ditched Varadkar’s promise to cut tax rates. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

When the 32nd Dáil resumes tomorrow, in what may be the last full session before a general election, Brexit and its economic, social and political implications will dominate the agenda. The minority Government will insist it has prepared carefully while Opposition speakers will claim otherwise. All will be conscious that any Brexit, “hard” or “soft”, will damage living standards and reduce funding for services. The remaining questions are: how serious will it be and who will take the blame?

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has played a careful hand, biding his time during Brexit negotiations and resisting backbench pressure to end the party’s confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fine Gael. His caution chimed with voters and support for the party rose, even as cost overruns at the children’s hospital and the national broadband project unsettled Fine Gael.

As the Brexit endgame approaches at Westminster, Irish political brakes are being disengaged. Demands on the Government to specify what actions it will take along the Border have become more insistent from Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party while Sinn Féin objects to any such arrangements. Having performed poorly in local and European elections, Sinn Féin has retreated to familiar ground; protecting its Northern base; demanding a referendum on Irish unity and aggravating the DUP. So long as the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive remain inactive, however, that approach will not appeal to southern voters.

With its reputation for financial reliability under intense scrutiny, the October budget will bring a revision of Government priorities. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s promise to cut tax rates will be ditched by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, to the relief of some backbenchers. Opposition parties were lining up to condemn tax cuts for the wealthy during the election campaign. So Donohoe dropped the vote sweetener. Criticism by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council of the Government’s reliance on corporation taxes and poor economic planning also helped.

The effects of Brexit will be felt for years to come in terms of lost jobs, North and South, and through lower growth rates, public service pay and living standards. Dáil debates are likely to shape the political narrative and apportion blame for these developments. The Government occupies the hot seat and is under pressure. And while the Taoiseach believes Fine Gael can win a May general election if it concentrates on regional development, support for families, housing delivery, health reform and climate action, it will not be easy. His to-do list contains administrative failures, particularly involving homelessness, housing and health problems. With all parties on an election footing, if a suitably contentious issue emerges after the budget, there may be a rush to the polling booths.

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