February 24th emerging as most likely election date


ANALYSIS:The Finance Bill’s complexity puts paid to the idea of a general election next month

THE LIKELIEST date for a general election is February 24th, the last Thursday in February. Key figures in both Coalition parties point to that date as probable, although the decision will be Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s alone. So far – as is usual – he has kept his own counsel.

But the realpolitik is that compromise will be needed between the Greens’ demands for a late January election and Fianna Fáil’s desire to spin it out as long as possible.

One senior Fianna Fáil adviser in Government suggested March 4th, but others in Fianna Fáil conceded that the Greens – having said January only 11 days ago – are not going to agree to any date beyond February.

“It’s not going to be January. We know that that’s not possible anymore. But a St Brigid’s Day election isn’t going to become a St Patrick’s Day election,” says a Green Party source, adding that the party’s base would not tolerate such a delay.

There is agreement between both parties that the Finance Bill is too complex to rush through the Oireachtas. The Dáil will come back a week early, on January 11th, to allow the passage of the Finance Bill and other key pieces of legislation.

The average passage of the Finance Bill from publication to enactment is usually six weeks.

If you exclude the emergency budget of October 2008 – which was an exception – the last three Finance Bills have been introduced in late January or early February and have passed towards the end of March.

In his interview in this paper yesterday with political editor Stephen Collins, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan said he appreciated there was anxiety to get the Finance Bill through quicker.

“We have started work on the Finance Bill but it is not possible to enact it before Christmas. It is a detailed measure.”

Even a pared-down Finance Bill will have to include several key – and in some cases, convoluted – elements. All new taxation measures (and you can be sure as night follows day that this budget will contain quite a few) will have to be included.

Another element that is always essential are sections to close off loopholes and tax-avoidance strategies that imaginative tax experts have devised. This often requires very careful drafting.

The third element is not strictly necessary but is considered to be desirable. This enables the Finance Bill to give statutory backing to any stimulus measures included in the budget. Other budgetary measures that require legislative change – such as excise changes or social welfare – will be dealt with before Christmas.

So what are the other key pieces of legislation that must be dealt with before the Dáil is dissolved in January? There are a few commitments in the four-year plan and the memorandum of understanding with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that will require legislation. Some of the measures promised to the EU-IMF by the first quarter require enabling legislation.

They include the commitment to reduce public sector pensions by 4 per cent and, possibly, the commitment to reduce the minimum wage by €1 (that may be dealt with by means of a statutory instrument).

And here one arrives at a paradox for the Greens. In one sense – though they won’t admit it – delay will also suit them. The longer the Dáil sits in January, the more pieces of very significant Green-hued legislation can be tabled. While the party would swear until it was blue in the face it reached a consensus decision to commit political hari kari, there were some members of the parliamentary party who privately baulked at the prospect.

While Fianna Fáil Ministers were incandescent at the peremptory manner of it, the reality was that if the party had not taken the decision that morning, an extraordinary meeting of the party’s membership would have taken it for them within weeks.

Green TDs and their advisers calculated that a definite decision would bring certainty. By letting things drift, they would be delaying the inevitable, and creating an atmosphere of continuing uncertainty to boot.

Nobody within the party is harbouring any illusion that its decision to enter government with Fianna Fáil has been anything other than a disaster electorally. The wipeout in the local elections last year is more likely than not to be repeated in the general election.

One of the difficulties the party would encounter with a late January election is this: it would lose the chance to bring some of its big ticket items. The Climate Change Bill, approved by the Cabinet a fortnight ago, will be published before Christmas but would only become law if the two main Opposition parties back it. That is not going to happen.

The party will also hope that its Bill banning corporate donations will be published before the Dáil dissolves. But this policy will go little further than that. There is uncertainty too about the Dublin Mayoral Bill – currently before the Oireachtas – becoming law.

All things being equal, the Dáil will sit for three weeks before an election is called. The most likely date for dissolution is Thursday, January 27th, allowing a four-week election campaign in February.

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