No sign of the hairshirt as parties offer bland prospect for years ahead

 

The new Programme for Government, the marriage vows between Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats, has omitted a pledge to cut specific spending programmes, writes Denis Coghlan

With Government spending up 22 per cent on last year, everyone was anxious to know how nasty Charlie McCreevy's new medicine was going to be and what areas would suffer pain. Surely, the current avalanche in spending was unsustainable? But, after 34 pages of coalition government promises and aspirations for the coming five years, no light had been shed. Sure, there was a pledge to keep the public finances in a healthy condition and to abide by the terms of the EU's Stability and Growth Pact. But no formal spending figure was offered.

It was unclear whether this meant the target would be higher or lower than the 8 per cent both Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats had suggested during the election campaign. No doubt it would depend on the vagaries of economic buoyancy.

The new approach was broad-brush stuff as the negotiators meshed Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats' funding ideas. Fianna Fáil's National Development Finance Agency was up in lights, with its capacity to raise off-balance sheet funds for major public projects. And the Progressive Democrats' National Transformation Fund also figured prominently, with its appetite for the proceeds of the sale of State companies and an estimated €1.5 billion in Central Bank reserves.

But,if the incoming government was coy about spending targets, it was up-front where a new Department of Transport was concerned; in its aspirations to reduce insurance costs across the board and to engage in public service reform.

Bertie Ahern spoke of radical change yesterday when he addressed members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party at Leinster House. But it wasn't clear whether he intended to chop out dead-wood ministers or engage in aggressive administrative and legal reform. Young, ambitious TDs hoped for the former. Older ones decided not to hold their breath.

What was certain was that the day of extensive tax cuts had passed. There was no reference to the Progressive Democrats' ambition to cut the top tax rate from 42 to 40 per cent. But it was hoped to remove those people on the minimum wage from the tax net over the next five years. And more gravy was offered, in the medium term, to those with share options, or subject to capital gains tax.

Mary Harney was pleased. The Progressive Democrats' leader had identified her priorities as reforming the public service and developing our infrastructure.

And why wouldn't she? After all, she is hotly favoured to become the first minister of the new Department of Transport. The Department will be responsible for developing the national roads network, for aviation and for trains, buses and all public transport. A Dublin metro - or at least a link to Dublin airport - is promised by 2007. A dedicated Traffic Corps, separate from the Garda Síochána, is promised. More competition will be introduced in the bus market. And the signposting of non-national roads will be given attention.

Michael O'Leary of Ryanair will have reason to smile. Special emphasis was laid on the need to develop low-cost air travel at all State airports. The Government undertook to build a low-cost facility at Pier D at Dublin airport without delay. And, in spite of the recommendation in a recent, expensive, report, the question of an independent terminal at Dublin airport is to be reopened.

If Mary Harney was happy, Michael McDowell looked like a cat who had swallowed a pound of butter. The party president was luxuriating in a job well done. As chief negotiator for the Progressive Democrats, the Attorney General had helped to deliver not just a programme for government, but two senior and two junior ministerial jobs for a party that had been on its uppers.

And it looked like pay-back time. Not only would Mr McDowell get one of the top two jobs in Cabinet - that likelihood became a certainty when Liz O'Donnell announced dramatically that she would not serve in the new government - but the odds were shortening on it becoming the powerful Department of Justice.

The extent of reforms envisaged for the legal area in the Programme for Government suggested that Mr McDowell had written his own ticket. Except where Fianna Fáil had decided not to antagonise the boys in blue and had forced the Progressive Democrats to drop the notion of a Garda Ombudsman.

There would, however, be lots of issues for a Minister for Justice to get his teeth into. Civil law would be reformed in order to reduce the cost of insurance for motorists and business. Civil litigation would be speeded up; there would be a ban on "no foal-no fee" advertising by solicitors; mandatory mediation in traffic accidents would be introduced; and those who gave false evidence in court would be prosecuted for perjury.

Something of a virtue was made of a commitment to legislate for a new Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority, even though the financial institutions and the Central Bank won that particular battle some months ago to the detriment of consumers. And that old chestnut of safety on the roads, with promises of police action on speeding, seat-belt wearing and drunk driving, was trotted out again.

There seemed to be some hunker-sliding where healthcare was concerned, with a commitment to provide 3,000 new beds over the next 10 years and no mention of the Taoiseach's promise to end waiting lists in two years.

Elsewhere, there was talk of reforming the libel laws, Judicial misbehaviour would be legislated for and the ban on reporting family law cases would be changed.

All in all, the package was much as expected. Fudges on the Bertie Bowl and methods of government fundraising. A promise of more good times ahead. And a discreet veil drawn over where the cutbacks in expenditure will come.

Denis Coghlan is Chief Political Correspondent of The Irish Times