The Programme for Government

 

So, the fourth Fianna Fáil-led coalition has gestated into a permanent little arrangement. The Agreed Programme for Government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, signed off by Mr Bertie Ahern and Ms Mary Harney yesterday, faithfully reflects the renewed mandate secured proportionately by both parties in the general election. But, it does not meet the claim of its authors to be "both clear in intent and specific in detail".

There are few surprises - though some important slippages - in the text.

The Programme makes it absolutely clear that the immediate priority of the incoming Government is to secure the passage of the Nice Treaty in a second referendum in the autumn. The treaty will be submitted to the people in a way which seeks to address their concerns, the document says. The Taoiseach said yesterday that he will travel to the EU summit in Seville later this month with the goal "to frame a declaration confirming that military neutrality is not affected". The consensus of silence which gripped all of the major pro-European parties during the election campaign is belatedly to be set aside.

The Programme is short on specifics on budgetary policy, particularly the public spending targets required to sustain a strong economy. There is merely a general commitment to keep the Government's finances "close to balance or in surplus" and to take corrective action when there is an actual or expected divergence from the objectives of the EU Stability and Growth Pact. But, the frightening shortfall in tax receipts and the need for drastic reductions in annual spending are not addressed at all.

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A comprehensive set of actions is proposed to tackle the high costs of insurance, particularly motor and employer-liability cover. The recommendations of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board - which featured on many doorsteps during the campaign - will be implemented urgently. A training scheme for new drivers, which will initially be voluntary, is aimed at attracting lower insurance premiums for participants. The "no-foal no-fee" advertising by solicitors will be banned.

The two parties have synchronised their pre-election commitments on funding the infrastructural deficit with clearly defined roles for Fianna Fáil's National Development Finance Agency and the PD's National Transformation Fund. The work programme for the newly integrated Department of Transport is extremely ambitious in the areas of national roads, aviation and public transport.

There are other important commitments in the document, however, which are not so clear. The two parties have failed spectacularly to reach a workable compromise on the appointment of an independent Ombudsman to investigate complaints against the Garda Síochána. They have rowed-back on their campaign promises to end hospital waiting lists. The 3,000 extra public hospital beds will now be provided over 10 years. But, for all of that, a providential opportunity has been granted to the incoming coalition and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that.