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Budget war brews between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin

Government risks creating expectations that can only be disappointed come budget-time

The Fine Gael parliamentary party held a dedicated meeting about the budget last night, anticipated to be a stage for TDs and Senators to mark their priorities in a pre-budget parlour game. As one parliamentarian remarked to me not too long ago, if you want media attention on your issue, forget a press release: just raise it at the PP meeting. What’s interesting is that the pace was set not by backbenchers, but the leadership.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar read from a pre-prepared document outlining the party’s priorities: reducing the cost of childcare, reducing student fees and providing more student grants, building more homes and giving a grant of up to €30,000 to first-time buyers saving for their deposit, keeping the cost of petrol and diesel down with low excise and cutting train and bus fares permanently, increasing payments for pensioners, carers, people with disabilities and the vulnerable, and extending GP care and lowering the cost of medicines. Meanwhile, the small government, pro-business, low-tax DNA of the party was at the centre of the promises – “putting more money back in people’s pockets must be one of the priorities of this year’s budget” – ie, tax cuts. Phew.

Just how much of this is new, how much is covered in existing policy, and how much could be construed as a budgetary promise is up for debate. In reality, it is closer to an aspirational piece of pamphleteering than a framework for budget negotiation. But it suggests that Fine Gael is in that lesser-spotted mode of economic thought: cut and spend.

The meeting took place shortly after Fine Gael’s Twitter account posted a video accusing Sinn Féin of a “shameless act of populism” for its motion on an emergency budget, starring prudent Paschal Donohoe. But you could be forgiven for not detecting much difference between the thrust of the Fine Gael document and Sinn Féin’s emergency budget.

Sinn Féin called for €1.3 billion in new funds between now and the end of 2022 as part of an “emergency” budget to counteract cost of living increases, including one-off payments for low- and middle-income earners, social welfare increases, a month’s rent paid back to renters and increases in the minimum wage alongside childcare measures. The party clearly smells blood in the water for the Government on cost of living – Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t even minded to wait for the motion yesterday before hammering the Government on the cost of living, bringing up the hardships visited on children whose families can’t afford clothes, during Leaders’ Questions.

It was hard-hitting stuff, which shows exactly how the cost-of-living debate will go over the summer. In truth, the debate on the motion itself failed to catch fire – despite attempts from Sinn Féin to goad the Government parties (Maireád Farrell comparing their stance to Charlie Haughey’s “way beyond our means” 1980 address).

So long as the Government holds out on more interventions, they can expect the Opposition to hammer home deprivation at every opportunity. Meanwhile, it seems like a budgetary version of auction politics war is opening up between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. The only substantive difference seems to be in how each side characterises the other: reckless and populist, or callous and aloof. From the Opposition point of view, this is sticking to a political recipe that has seen them climb in the polls; for the Government, it risks creating expectations that can only be disappointed come budget-time.

Sarah Burns’s write-up of the debate is here.

And Harry McGee has pieces on the Fine Gael meeting and the Sinn Féin emergency budget.

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The health committee meets with patient and survivor advocates, and the Health Service Executive, to discuss issues relating to vaginal mesh implants, at 9.30am. The Committee on Tourism and Sport has a double-header in the afternoon, meeting the Football Association of Ireland and others to discuss social outcome contracts at 1.30pm, before unions and academics come in to discuss working conditions and skills shortages in the hospitality and tourism sector. That’s at 3.05pm.

Paschal Donohoe meets with the finance committee on double taxation agreements with the Isle of Man and Guernsey at 1.30pm. The board of TG4 is in before Comhchoiste na Gaeilge at the same time, and the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is before the Committee on Agriculture at 5.30pm for pre-legislative scrutiny of the Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill.

The full schedule is here.

After topical issues, the Dáil debates the second stage of Labour’s Autism Bill at 10am, followed by Leaders’ Questions at midday and questions on policy or legislation before lunch. In the afternoon, Government business gets stuck into the pre-recess flood of legislation with a gusto (remember when President Michael D Higgins wrote to the Ceann Comhairle, not even a year ago, about the volume of legislation flying through the Dáil at the end of term?). Anyway, there will be motions on two pieces of legislation and an EU opt-in from the Department of Justice before the Eigrid, Electricity and Turf (Amendment) Bill 2022. The report and final stages of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill is at 6.20pm, before the Dáil considers Seanad amendments on legislation regulating builders and building standards, the report and final stages of the Consumer Rights Bill, and the report and final stages of the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Bill. Phew.

The voting block is at 9.35pm, before the Dáil adjourns shortly after 10pm.

Here’s the full schedule.

Over in the Seanad, the Sick Leave Bill will pass committee and remaining stages as will the Defence Forces Amendment Bill. The Tips and Gratuities Bill is the last one on the ticket before the Seanad adjourns shortly after 8pm.