Sinn Féin made a lot of promises in its manifesto. An awful lot of promises.
A spend of €22bn, twice the fiscal space that may be available, coupled with vows to reduce the pension age back to 65, fix the housing crisis, and reduce the logjam on health waiting lists, means that the party has backed itself into a bit of a corner in terms of what it is to deliver with the overwhelming mandate it has received.
In truth, much of what has been promised would seem to be incompatible with coalition, given that Sinn Féin cannot govern without the assistance of either a broad alliance of the Left or the backing of one of either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, with an alliance with one of the two ‘main’ parties being by far the easiest route to stable government.
In contrast to both those parties, Sinn Féin has pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy while cutting the impositions placed on low earners and scrapping property tax. All of this is to be achieved while somehow creating a budget surplus of more than €3bn in each of its years in power in order to soften the impact caused by a sudden reduction in corporation tax receipts. How this is to be achieved is not specified.
Housing and health are where it has chosen to bet the farm. In terms of health, pretty much everything has been promised, on a budget not far outstripping the current incremental increase in expenditure of €1bn per annum. Housing seems more do-able given the projected expense is less onerous, with the emphasis placed on policy reform.
In its manifesto, Sinn Féin has marked Ireland’s health crisis as being its “number one priority”.
This may explain why it has promised the sun, moon, and stars regarding same. With a “vision that healthcare should be free at the point of use”, the party has promised to invest €6.1bn in the system over a five-year term of government.
Commitments are made across the board. The party says it will lift the HSE’srecruitment embargo and recruit 3,500 more frontline staff, roll out free GP care for all, deliver free hospital parking, deliver pay restoration for all consultants, introduce a statutory homecare scheme, deliver 1,500 additional hospital beds, eliminate prescription charges, and convert all agency staff into workers employed by the State.
Delivering all that, even under the guise of Sláintecare, would seem an impossible task. Budgeting is not the issue — the party’s spending promises are not a million miles removed from those of Fine Gael for example.
However, additional spending will always be required of any health system simply to stand still.
So what is doable? You would expect the party’s priority to be something tangible, and the most obvious target from that point of view would be waiting lists, which have ballooned in recent years to more than 600,000.
Sinn Féin says it will address that crisis point by introducing a new integrated waiting list system. However, it’s hard to see how its benefits would be seen overnight.
The party’s willingness to break the system in order to rejuvenate it is clear in its desire to move agency workers, currently costing the exchequer €0.9 million €900,000 per day, onto the State’s payroll.
That would require a wholesale redrafting of how health in Ireland works, however, and would require a great deal of time. Can it be achieved?
It’s hard to see how it can be with the party’s current mandate.
While health may be the party’s main priority, housing is where it has sold itself to voters most effectively, with Eoin Ó Broin’s status as a policy wonk fully informed of his brief believed to represent the country’s best route out of its current quagmire.
The party has promised an additional €6.5bn in order to see the construction of more than 100,000 social and affordable homes on public lands. It has further promised to freeze rents for three years, with the reduction of property prices earmarked as a policy priority.
However, most of the party’s housing focus is in the arena of policy, not spending. By contrast, Labour is promising to spend nearly three times what Sinn Féin is, albeit with most of it sourced outside the capital budget.
To that end, Sinn Féin says it will prioritise the use of public land above all else while empowering the local authorities to “aggressively” bring private homes into use.
The obligation on private developments for inclusion of social housing space is to be increased to 25% from 10%, while use of public-private partnerships for delivery of public housing is to cease. Sinn Féin says it would redefine public housing via legislation to “end the privatisation” of such properties, while simultaneously cancelling the local property tax, one of the State’s most consistent forms of revenue.
Given the party’s emphasis on moving away from a reliance on private developers, these policies could well have a significant, immediate effect in terms of social housing and homelessness.
The unanswered question is how the 100,000 houses are to be built, given the industry is already operating at maximum capacity, with just 14,000construction workers added to the workforce since 2016.
That doesn’t mean the dream is an impossibility — with specific deals in place with building unions, it could happen. But achieving the 100,000 figure on a relatively small budget would be a tall order.
For a party campaigning on a platform of tackling climate change where the outgoing government has consistently come up short, just €275m of the Sinn Féin spending plan — which incorporates all of the communications, climate action, and the environment portfolio — is earmarked to that end.
And just €30m of that figure is for additional capital spending.
From that point of view, the party’s promises on climate are almost entirely free of commitments on spending. An additional €4m is to be provided for the Just Transition Fund aimed at moving the Midlands away from its dependence on fossil fuel industries, together with the establishment of a dedicated task force for that purpose.
The party has ruled out any increases to carbon tax, which it deems to be “regressive” and existing purely to raise funds — this runs contrary to established thinking that such measures are necessary in order to secure behavioural changes.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has placed itself firmly in opposition to fossil fuel exploration, with a total ban on fracking to be instigated.
In terms of renewables, the party has vowed to amend planning legislation in order to streamline the applications process for offshore wind projects, given the paucity of such projects underway off Irish shores despite the industry’s stated need for further emphasis to be placed on the sector.
Regarding emissions, investment in the retrofitting of homes to reduce energy bills is planned at a cost of €160m.
No commitment is made regarding the national broadband plan apart from it being termed an “omnishambles”.
Given the relative small-scale nature of the party’s commitments on climate and communications, its stated objectives, such as they are, should be eminently achievable.
Whether or not Sinn Féin would be willing to bend significantly on the issues in terms of coalition forming, with, for example, the Greens, remains to be seen.
Finance is where the real meat and potatoes of Sinn Féin’s campaign promises lie, and it is where much of the criticism it has received for those promises is aimed.
In promising a manifesto package of €22bn fully twice the fiscal space the Department of Finance has said may become available over the next five years — the party could be accused of prioritising populism over reality.
Sinn Féin plans to pay for its mammoth budget with a series of wealth taxes which would see anyone earning more than €140,000 hit with a levy of 5%, while attempting to consolidate corporation tax income and minimise avoidance by“supporting greater transparency regarding where multinationals make their profits and pay their taxes”.
However, these measures run side-by-side with plans to do away with the local property tax, and to eliminate the universal service charge for those earning less than €30,000 per annum.
All this, and the party is planning to run a budget surplus of €3.4bn billion each year in order to buffer the fallout from a loss of corporation tax receipts.
The party has pledged to drop the Government’s appeal against the Apple ruling, which saw the tech giant payout €14.3bn to the State in uncollected taxes.
The figures are very hard to give credence to, given their intrinsically anti-investment nature.
Likewise, in dismissing the Department of Finance’s projections, utterly little provision is given towards any prospective recession, which is far from beyond the realms of possibility.
Leaving that aside, Sinn Féin’s mandate, while impressive on an electoral level, simply cannot wash in coalition where severe compromises would need to be made.
Which leaves us with a conundrum: The party’s promises have got it elected, but they seem borderline impossible to implement without dealing a crushing blow to the economy.
Crime and legal matters represents one of the more slender passages in Sinn Féin’s 110-page manifesto, not least given the party’s well-documented antipathy towards the Special Criminal Court is not deemed worthy of a single mention.
The party says it will commence “the biggest Garda recruitment drive in the history of the State” via an investment of €142m. That would see the force’s strength rise from its current level of 14,000. The figure itself is not beyond the pale — Fianna Fáil has promised the exact same thing. Sinn Féin differs slightly in its plans to hire 2,000 additional civilian staff, at a cost of €80m, which would see all of An Garda Síochána’s strength free for deployment on the frontlines.
Meanwhile, the remit of the Criminal Assets Bureau would be “broadened”, with additional funding of €10m promised to be split between the DPP and the Courts Service.
Much of the focus of the manifesto’s justice segment goes towards rural policing and equality, with an emphasis being placed on law enforcement within the community.
The measures aimed at rural Ireland perhaps see the party playing to its own gallery, given crime statistics from the CSO show that, in general, homicide, and burglary offences have declined in recent years.
Meanwhile, a distinct anti-corruption stance plays into the party’s self-appointed anti-establishment niche, exemplified by its focus on the wrongdoing of banks and insurance companies.
To that end, Sinn Féin has promised to extend whistleblowing protections, introducea white-collar crime bill to strengthen prosecution powers for corporate crime, and reduce the prohibitive legal costs of tribunals of inquiry.
From the point of view that justice seems to have been something of an afterthought within the manifesto, there is very little on display here that could not be achieved for a relatively modest outlay.