It is unsurprising that the biggest budget blow landed on the Government by Sinn Féin came in the form of a housing riposte from Pearse Doherty.
Mr Doherty, Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman, made quick work in the Dáil of belittling the Coalition’s much-hyped €500 tax credit for renters when he said that those against such a move have been none other than Government Ministers themselves.
Labelling the rent credit a “pale imitation” of Sinn Féin’s plan to give people one month of their rent back alongside a ban on rent increases, Doherty noted a comment made by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe last year.
Last November, Donohoe was asked by Sinn Féin TD Pauline Tully if he would consider a tax credit for renters capped at €1,500. He replied that such forms of rent relief had previously been abolished on foot of a recommendation by the tax commission and “accordingly, the result of reintroducing this relief would be a transfer of exchequer funding directly to landlords, which would not have the intended effect of reducing the cost pressure on tenants”.
It wasn’t just Donohoe who spoke out against it either.
In April of this year, in response to questions from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that a “tax credit would only add to the price of those rents. It would be inflationary. There is no guarantee it would result in a reduction of increasing rents for new tenancies, none whatsoever.”
It delivered a swift blow to the Government’s one defence that it was helping renters directly, after failing to intervene in such a manner last year.
Both Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath cut sombre figures as Doherty told Donohoe he had “announced a measure that he knows in his heart, and has told [Dáil] members, that it will be pocketed by landlords at a time when renters are desperate for real relief that will make a real difference to them”.
Time and again in his speech, regardless of what subject he moved his attention to next, Doherty returned to the topic of housing when he wanted to put the boot in
The flip side of this, of course, is that this is exactly what Sinn Féin were looking for themselves: a rent credit or tax rebate, albeit at a higher level. Sinn Féin would argue that they urged such a credit alongside an overall ban on increases and that it would only work in such a context, but either way they were calling for a measure they now seem to admit won’t work.
Time and again in his speech, regardless of what subject he moved his attention to next, Doherty returned to the topic of housing when he wanted to put the boot in.
He labelled the Government as the party of “property developers”, said they had missed their housing targets, that champagne corks would pop among institutional investors and that those who want to buy a home have all the cards stacked against them.
It is Sinn Féin’s most comfortable territory and they took full advantage.
If there was another blow delivered by Doherty it was his portrayal of the Government as leaving low- to middle-income workers “out in the cold”.
“The income tax package announced today by the Minister for Finance will benefit somebody on €135,000 to the tune of €830, while three-quarters of earners will actually only benefit by €190. What message does this send out to people in the squeezed middle, whether it is the staff nurse working in our hospitals at this point in time, or the teacher or somebody working in the private sector earning €35,000, that the person on €135,000 will get a tax break at least four times more than those other workers will get? It tells them that they are an afterthought,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s appeal to middle Ireland is at an interesting stage: what will these voters make of the party’s insistence on price caps on energy charges when the Government argues that it would actually benefit those who are better off with bigger homes, as well as the energy industry itself? The Green Party have certainly rejected the idea that people should in any way be using the same amount of energy that they were previously.
The Government has labelled Sinn Féin’s energy plan as being straight out of the Tory handbook, but then the Government also promised a windfall on energy profits though not just yet it seems.
Doherty is on familiar territory when he is lambasting the Coalition for failing to do enough for struggling families.
The question is how much further would Sinn Féin have gone? For example, in their own alternative budget, they said they would introduce a once-off cost-of-living package worth €4.1 billion, which is almost exactly what the Government’s once-off package is worth.
Sinn Féin wanted welfare increases of €17.50 over two phases whereas the Government opted for €12
By Doherty’s own admission in his speech on Tuesday, the public finances are in enough of a good place to allow for some extraordinary spending to cushion the sizeable blow being felt by households countrywide. Sinn Féin wanted welfare increases of €17.50 over two phases whereas the Government opted for €12.
They also wanted to halt the planned increase in carbon taxes arguing it would hit people with extra costs when they can’t afford it — but the Coalition has kept the prices at the pumps steady, at least from this issue by cutting the oil levies.
There has been much focus recently on Sinn Féin’s apparent shift to the centre — including reports of meetings with Ireland Inc and reassuring messages about being more amenable to big business — but if Doherty’s Budget 2023 speech was anything to go by, Sinn Féin will keep their focus firmly on the twin crises in housing and health, knowing it is highly unlikely these will be solved come election 2025.