Fine Gael's manifesto

 

WITH THE election less than two weeks away, Fine Gael is attempting to consolidate its lead over other parties while avoiding potential banana skins. It is a delicate process. As a result, publication of its 81-page election manifesto yesterday was a low-key affair that promised to grow the economy, keep taxes low, eliminate waste and protect the most vulnerable.

The only difference between those aspirations and the party’s long-published “Five Point Plan to Get the Country Working” lies in the ordering of priorities. The emphasis switched from cutting employers’ PRSI, investing in infrastructure and reforming the health services to radical public-service cuts and job creation.

Enda Kenny admitted as much when he said the manifesto fleshed out the core elements of Fine Gael’s five-point plan. But basic commitments remained unchanged. Fine Gael intended to cut the government deficit to 3 per cent by 2014, he said, as provided for in the EU-IMF bailout. It would, however, seek to renegotiate the terms of that deal. In government, its economic approach would concentrate on budgetary cuts rather than on job-destroying tax increases.

A moment of economic reality during RTÉ’s five-way leaders’ debate in which Mr Kenny declared: “everybody has to suffer here. . . everybody has to cut back”, gave way to soft-focus pre-election politics. A variety of interest groups, from pensioners to farmers, mortgage holders to small businesses were assured their interests would be taken into account. The only obvious people at risk were public servants and they are to retire on age grounds or be offered voluntary redundancy.

Heated exchanges from Monday night between Mr Kenny and Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore, involving a “€5 billion black hole” in Fine Gael’s financial strategy, continued to resonate. For the first time, the party published a growth prediction of 3 per cent in its manifesto – attributed to the ESRI – as underpinning job creation and development. But finance spokesman Michael Noonan later endorsed the Department of Finance’s growth figure of 2.7 per cent and said if growth turned out to be lower, it would be possible to extend the deficit reduction period to 2015. This clash between the parties, over the timing and extent of cutbacks and spending, is likely to sharpen.

Job creation and job cuts go hand-in-hand in Fine Gael’s manifesto. A €7 billion investment programme and plans to create 100,000 jobs over five years are counteracted by a proposal to cut 30,000 public service jobs and save €5 billion. Plans to reform government, abolish the Seanad and strengthen the role of the Dáil are linked with proposals to strengthen financial oversight. Bank employment levels and costs will be squeezed. AIB will be offered for sale to a foreign bank while the Government’s stake in Bank of Ireland will be sold to Irish citizens. The manifesto envisages difficulties and opportunity and a 73/27 balance between cuts and taxes. Policy fudges and special undertakings for farmers are included. The document is worth reading.