Pat Leahy: Fine Gael’s spendthrift role reversal with FF

Broadband rollout is latest extravagant project unveiled ahead of next election

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: will find Micheál Martin throwing the children’s hospital, broadband and unchecked budget overruns elsewhere at him. Photograph: Francois Lenoir

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: will find Micheál Martin throwing the children’s hospital, broadband and unchecked budget overruns elsewhere at him. Photograph: Francois Lenoir

 

There was a time, after the late-stage dessication of Bertie Ahern’s administration in the 2000s when Fine Gaelers – including a young Turk called Varadkar – used to delight in listing out the various financial and political calamities that had been overseen so expertly by Fianna Fáil ministers. Decentralisation, PPars , e-voting, the Bertie Bowl, Thornton Hall etc. How the Fine Gael conferences used to hoot and cheer. How Fine Gael backbenchers used to sit back and enjoy Varadkar’s Dáil excoriations, perhaps thinking that boy is going places.

But as the Taoiseach, like anyone who has ever done the job, has learned, being in government is a bit trickier than the Opposition pretends. As remarked hereabouts before, the decisions facing Ministers are often not between a good option and a bad option, but between two bad options.

This week, the Cabinet rubber-stamped the decision made by the Taoiseach some time ago when he made his choice between the two bad options. One option (he was advised) was financially unwise; the other – cancelling the project – he knew to be politically toxic. As politicians are likely to do, especially in sight of an election, he chose the first option. This is not surprising – what was remarkable is that it was delayed, conceived, framed and communicated in a way that continues to put the Government on the defensive. It takes special skill to turn a €3 billion investment package into a political crisis. Poor Paschal Donohoe hasn’t looked this awkward since he insisted that the Department of Health would be made stick to its budget.

It takes special skill to turn a €3 billion investment package into a political crisis

Mind you, let’s be clear: no matter what the Government decided on the rural broadband plan, the Opposition would criticise it. And the media would seek to pick holes in it. That is, in part, our role in all this. But we are, let me assure you, unaccustomed to having allies at the very centre of government to assist us in that task.

Expenditure objections

The objections of the Department of Public Expenditure to the broadband plan were extraordinarily vehement and extraordinarily public. This is not the way government business normally happens. It is clear that the senior civil servants involved, led by the department’s secretary general Robert Watt, someone who has been an indispensable figure in government since the financial crisis and instrumental in the State’s recovery from that period, felt that this project was not just a run-of-the-mill mistake. They felt it was something much bigger than that.

Watt was, I think, seeking to speak truth to power. He is both clever and courageous. But that doesn’t mean that he is right about everything. Ministers are entitled to make different decisions. The broadband plan looks seriously misconstrued to me on grounds of risk-sharing, cost, and prospective take-up but I am not sure that the claim it represents an unprecedented risk to the exchequer entirely stacks up.

It might be unwise, but I don’t think it will be catastrophic. It is, after all, €3 billion over several years while we spend €16 billion every year on the health service. That bill has gone up by €4 billion in the last four years. And that €4 billion extra is recurring – it has to be paid every year. The Department of Public Expenditure has been less vocal about that money, in public anyway. It may choose to be more forthright in the future. The next budget, if this government gets to do one, may be a lot more difficult.

For all the week’s bombast on one side and ululations on the other, though, it is hard to see this as a political game-changer in either direction. Interestingly, I am given to understand that, in their inner sancta sanctorum, both the Fine Gael and the Fianna Fáil hierarchies were not displeased with the week’s events.

Economic responsibility

Fine Gael believes that rural Ireland will get the message that the Government cares about it and wants to put its (that is, our) money where its mouth is. Fianna Fáil believes that puts another nail in the coffin of Fine Gael’s claims to be the party of economic responsibility.

Both views have merit; I tend towards Fine Gael’s view in the short term, and Fianna Fáil’s over the longer term. It will certainly be difficult for Fine Gael to present itself as the champions of fiscal prudence in a future general election campaign. That may be significant because the credibility of promises to cut tax – as Varadkar has signalled will be central to the Fine Gael offer – hangs on a reputation for fiscal and economic competence. To say the least of it, that is under pressure now.

It will be difficult for Fine Gael to present itself as the champions of fiscal prudence in a general election campaign

Where Varadkar once delighted in listing Fianna Fáil’s sins, now Fine Gael has assembled its own impressive list and Varadkar will find Micheál Martin throwing the children’s hospital, broadband and unchecked budget overruns elsewhere at him. Paschal Donohoe’s apparent discomfort in insisting that the money would be found somewhere and that no existing projects would be harmed in the making of this movie suggested that he may understand this quite clearly.

Readers who remember a time before our present enlightened age may find this reversal of the traditional roles occupied by the big two parties amusing – Fine Gael in government bunging billions at rural Ireland before an election, Fianna Fáil in opposition tut-tutting about the irresponsibility of it all. You’d be amazed, says a person who monitors local radio and newspapers, at the amount of grants announced in local media this week. Fancy that.

Enda Kenny once said that his ambition was to replace Fianna Fáil as the largest party and the natural party of government. Are we there yet? “I suppose it makes us more like Fianna Fáil,” one Government insider with mixed feelings told me during the week. “Maybe that means we should win the next election.”

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