In February 1992 at his first press conference after being elected leader of Fianna Fáil, Albert Reynolds surprised many by promising that achieving peace in Northern Ireland would be a key priority for his new government.
Reynolds had served only in economic ministries prior to becoming taoiseach but Northern Ireland policy absorbed and defined his premiership. He delivered on his promise. In those days we had to wait until after new party leaders were elected to before knowing what their personal policy priorities would be. This week however, the mechanics of the Fine Gael leadership campaign have required the two contenders to publish detailed policy documents in advance. The documents published by Varadkar and Coveney contain much that is vague and aspirational. However, they are worthy of close scrutiny for hints of where either man would take us as taoiseach.
The most striking thing is that both Varadkar and Coveney have effectively disowned the policy of prioritising the abolition of the Universal Social Charge which was the central plank of Fine Gael’s 2016 manifesto. Instead they commit to merging the USC and PRSI and aiming to ensure that nobody should pay more than 50 cent in income on tax of social insurance on any euro they earn.
Varadkar also says that he will be a more expansionist in fiscal policy. He has promised a dramatic reduction in the national debt target to 55 per cent of GDP (rather than the current 45 per cent) in other to fund a substantially increased capital programme. He plans to fund a Dublin Metro, a new M20 motorway between Cork and
, motorway access to the west and northwest, and investment in the health and education system. Coveney also promises additional infrastructure investment and even indeed promises a minister for infrastructure. Coveney makes the case, for example, for a one-hour high-speed train from Dublin to Galway.
Neither Varadkar nor Coveney, however, appears to have factored in the reality that, given the demand for commercial property and the infrastructural projects currently being undertaken our construction industry is already approaching maximum capacity even before the promised additional capital expenditure (not to mention the promised housing development).
The most newsworthy proposal in Varadkar's document turned out to be the promise to legislate to make Labour Court recommendations binding on employers and union in "essential public and security service".
The documents don't, however, specify, what those essential service are and instead proposes leaving it to the Oireachtas to determine. It left him open to allegation of being anti-public sector and anti-union.
The most newsworthy proposals from Coveney turned out to be a new anti-corruption and transparency commission which he says will tackle such matters “much more energetically than is currently the case. It was also newsworthy when the Social Democrats suggested it – and Fine Gael opposed it – many months ago. On Brexit, both Varadkar and Coveney use language, which is very much consistent with the current Government’s approach of working closing within the EU27 framework. Varadkar however implies a greater openness to allowing “those outside Government and the political system” to have an input into the development of Brexit policy.
He says that he will establish something akin to the standing committee on Europe which the Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon set up to shape her government's response to Brexit.
Northern Ireland gets more prominence in both documents then might have been expected. It illustrates the extent to which Brexit has transformed the context for Northern Ireland policy over the last year. Varadkar in his document talks of “preparing for the possibility that a United Ireland or shared sovereignty will occur in our lifetime”. He is not specific about those preparations merely saying that we “should explore how we can co-operate more fully on this island and between these islands”.
‘Reunification of Ireland’
Coveney’s document goes even further. He says Fine Gael “should develop a positive economic and strategic case for the reunification of Ireland over time and within the EU”. He promises a White Paper on possible reunification to be published before November together with an All-Island Forum and a Dáil committee to explore possible options for the future of North-South relations. Both of them however have emphatically ruled out a Border poll “at this time”.
Neither of the two candidates for the Fine Gael leadership have anything to say, however, about how they propose to break the “new politics” legislative logjam in the Dáil and in Government.
If the new taoiseach cannot solve that problem all his policy proposals won’t be worth the paper they are written on.