Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Reporter
Fianna Fáil has promised to cut the universal social charge (USC) for all but the highest earners in Irish society if it returns to power after the next election - despite insisting it has "learned the lessons" of the dangers of auction politics.
The party's finance spokesperson Michael McGrath (pictured) outlined the plan as part of a series of high-profile tax and "rainy day" fund moves the opposition group plans to implement if elected to government.
Speaking at a round table media briefing in Dublin, the front-bencher said that Fianna Fáil's still-unpublished election manifesto will include plans to cancel USC completely for anyone earning under €80,000 a year and to drastically cut the fee for those earning more than that sum over the next five years.
Under the plan, the party intends to remove the lowest USC rate of 1% on income up to €12,012 within a year of entering government, and to halve the 3% rate on the next €6,600 of income a person receives.
He said the party will also commit to cutting the 5.5% rate on the next €51,376 of a person's income, and to remove the 3% and 5.5% rates entirely over the next five years. The 8% rate on income above €80,000 would be reduced to 5.5%, but not removed.
In addition, Fianna Fáil has said it will cut the capital gains tax on entrepreneurs to a 10% flat rate on income up to €15m in order to compete with Britain, and to create a "rainy day" fund from future excess corporation tax which would only be spent if another economic crisis occurs.
However, despite facing criticism the plans - which will cost €459m and €7m a year for USC and capital gains - bear all the hallmarks of a return to auction politics, Mr McGrath insisted his party has "learned the lessons of the past", has been more "prudent" than rival groups and is not trying to buy electoral success.
"We have certainly learned the lessons from the past. We have set out I believe a number of policy initiatives which underpin what would be a responsible approach to the economy and we are the first to advocate a rainy day fund," he said.
Asked why his party is not committing to removing USC entirely during the next Dáil, unlike the Government parties, Mr McGrath said people have become "very cynical about political promises and understandably so" and that what he has outlined is "something I can stand over and which is deliverable".
He said while a complete removal is "possible in the lifetime of the next government if the economy recovers, we can't commit to that", and chastised Fine Gael and Labour for its "frenzy of promises" before the last election which were "abandoned almost immediately".
Fine Gael and Labour hit out at the claim, with Jobs Minister Richard Bruton warning Fianna Fáil's economic track record shows it cannot be trusted and that the party is "a risk to the recovery".
In a statement, Labour back-bencher Derek Nolan said USC is Fianna Fáil's "baby" and that his own party "will not take lectures" from the opposition group on its reform.
Michael McGrath repeatedly refused to clarify what coalition options are open to Fianna Fáil after the party ruled out any deals with Fine Gael or Sinn Féin, and Labour leader Joan Burton's decision last week to "categorically" reject any potential deal.
Fianna Fáil would certainly need to enter a coalition, as it is running 71 candidates and needs 80-plus seats to gain power.
However, Mr McGrath insisted it is still offering a "credible" alternative to the current Government.
"We are on a journey as a political party," he said. "Obviously we lost a huge amount of support in 2011 and we do face a very serious challenge to rebuild trust with Irish people, to rebuild credibility on economic matters. I would be the first to acknowledge that is a difficult task, but it is surmountable."
Asked what Fianna Fáil's coalition strategy is, Mr McGrath added it has "been outlined on many occasions" before agreeing this means there isn't one, as party officials have yet to explain who they believe can help them return to power.
"Yes, that is the strategy and that is not going to change. We're going into the election to maximise Fianna Fáil representation, and that is not going to change," he said.
"The media can write us off as you wish…Many have done so so far. We'll see what the people decide. We won't have long to wait."