Fintan O’Toole: Fine Gael feigns surprise at the books it cooked

The party knew long before it drew up its manifesto that the new government would face fiscal issues

Taoiseach Enda Kenny  at Custom House Quay, Dublin. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Custom House Quay, Dublin. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

If you listen carefully, you can hear an extraordinary admission: Fine Gael is owning up that its election manifesto was a scam.

It’s not saying this directly, of course, but rehearsing one of the oldest tunes in the post-electoral playbook: We’ve just seen the books and things are much worse than we expected.

So, terribly sorry, but those promises we made will have to be shelved for now.

However, the party is playing this old number with a bizarrely discordant variation.

The “we’ve just seen the books” lament is meant to be sung by opposition parties taking power from a discredited outgoing government.

The deep weirdness of our current politics is that Fine Gael’s position is, essentially, that the Fine Gael crowd were cooking the books.

We’re shocked, I tell you, shocked!

On Saturday, The Irish Times reported that: “Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has warned that health overspending could eliminate the next government’s ability to deliver many tax cuts and policy pledges being discussed during talks on forming a new government.

“In an economic briefing to Independent TDs yesterday, Mr Noonan warned that if the health service exceeded its budget by more than €250 million this year, the next government would be ‘in trouble’.”

This is the alleged shock: the money we promised to spend on tax cuts may instead be swallowed up by overruns in health spending. But this shock registers as -100 on the Richter scale.

As appalling revelations go, it’s up there with Brendan Behan’s secret fondness for a drink, WB Yeats’s private propensity for writing poems, and Donald Trump’s brilliantly disguised comb-over.

Since 2008, the alleged “health service overrun” has been a way of cooking the books. Every single year since the crisis set in, the Health Service Executive has significantly overshot its allocated budget.

This has become entirely institutionalised and it epitomises the farcical nature of the entire budgetary process.

It’s a ritual: the HSE says how much it will cost to keep the service running even at its current grossly inadequate levels; the minister for finance gives it up to a billion euro less than that; the HSE spends what it has to spend anyway; and then the minister rushes through a supplementary budget to make up the shortfall.

It is a stupid game, but Noonan, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and/or James Reilly have been playing it every single year they have been in office.

Scam by any other name

Charles Haughey used to get hammered for this kind of thing. His scam wasn’t called “HSE overrun”; it was called “revenue buoyancy”.

But Charlie was a bad man and Enda and Michael are good men, so that’s all right.

Still, it is going a bit far for Fine Gael to pretend that’s it’s only just discovered its own shenanigans and is shocked – shocked I say! – to realise that all the tax cuts it promised in the election can’t be delivered.

Noonan’s appalled realisation that the next government might be “in trouble” rests on two alleged developments.

One is that the incoming government may have to give medical consultants up to €300 million in back pay. But this is not a surprise, never mind a shock.

The consultants’ legal actions have been under way for years and the €300 million figure has been reported since at least last summer.

Moreover, The Irish Times reported that “it is understood the Attorney General has advised that the HSE settle the cases”.

Fine Gael knew long before it drew up its election manifesto that the new government would face a contingent liability of this order. It just decided to pretend otherwise.

The other supposed bombshell is that the HSE is likely to overrun its budget yet again in 2016.

But the HSE itself warned the Government as far back as December that it would face a shortfall of €300 million to €500 million this year.

And this, bear in mind, is simply to maintain a service whose inadequacies are known to be killing hundreds of patients every year.

In 2009, the official judgment was that 418 intensive care beds were needed for a safe system. We actually have 237.

This alone kills far more Irish people every year than the Troubles did.

Pretend money

Fine Gael damn well knew all of this long before the election. It pretended otherwise so that it could find the money to bribe voters with tax cuts.

The voters, rightly, smelt a rat.

And now all it is left with is the truly weird last resort of suggesting that the outgoing government, whoever that might be, has left its successor with a terrible fiscal headache.

In other words, those dishonest and incompetent Fine Gaelers should be kicked out and replaced by – themselves!

This would all be quite funny were it not actually happening.

An acting Taoiseach with no authority and a party that has emphatically lost an election are to be placed back in power on the basis of a fiscal plan exposed as a scam. And all for no better reason than Fianna Fáil’s vanity.

At least one thing Noonan told the Independents is true: the government will be “in trouble” even before it is formed.

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