The Government has left it very late in the day to Brexit-proof its key voter base. But what about the rest of the country? asks Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin
When does a crisis really become an emergency worth acting on? For Fine Gael and its partners in government, it seems it all comes down to voter base.
The Government cares enough about Brexit to halt the annual fiver-on-the-pension, income tax cuts, and other public pacifiers and instead has taken the drastic but responsible decision to borrow over €1bn to address a no-deal.
But why, over nine budgets, has Fine Gael not seen the need to take such assertive action when it comes to the most vulnerable people in our State?
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s Brexit budget speech, which was delivered as 501 patients lingered on trolleys and more than 10,000 people were without a place to call home, was one directed at his party’s loyal support base, the big farmers and business people who will be hit badly by a no-deal scenario.
Donohoe stressed and stressed again the dangers of Brexit — in fact his script made mention of it 39 times and the term ‘no-deal’ was included 28 times.
However, ‘homelessness’ got just three mentions in the 35-page speech and ‘social housing’ was referred to the same number of times.
The terms ‘health’ and ‘healthcare’ fared slightly better, getting nine mentions throughout his 70 minutes of speaking time.
Instead of halting popular budget giveaways in recent years, like has been done in Budget 2020 for Brexit, the Government continued to sweeten up the electorate with piecemeal tax reductions and welfare hikes.
The Government carried on as usual as trolley figures, hospital waiting lists, homeless figures, and rental costs all went in one direction. Of course investment has been made in both housing and health — the relevant ministers will correctly claim the level of money allocated to both their departments is unprecedented.
In the three years since Simon Harris took over the health portfolio, he has been given an additional €3.5bn. This will increase to an extra €4.5bn when the Budget 2020 allocation is factored in.
But in health it is not a case of how much money you get but what is done with it and the jump in funding will not be seen as bang for buck among the roughly 50,000 people who have added their name to an already lengthy outpatient waiting list this year.
When pressed on whether he had fought for extra funding for 2020 to build more social houses and take 10,338 people out of homelessness, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said he had not.
“No, in terms of negotiations I had with the Minister for Finance, this was about making sure the money we were securing was going into the right areas,” Murphy told RTÉ News.
Building houses takes time. Sorting out our unwieldy health service is also complicated.
But governments in the past have shown they can act with urgency in the face of adversity — just think back to 2008 when Fianna Fáil moved to save the banks.
Likewise, the Cabinet agenda was cleared early last year when the Government sprung into action on drafting emergency Brexit legislation.
Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that in a the event of a no-deal Brexit, the people who are most vulnerable are those who will lose their jobs “and that is what this budget is all about”.
“We are putting in place the firepower to pay social welfare to those who may need it because they lose their jobs and, more importantly, to save businesses and jobs. I would rather borrow money to save jobs than to pay the dole and that is the policy we are pursuing,” said Varadkar.
The Brexit-focused budget sparked a rather unparliamentary but heartfelt outburst from Independent TD Joan Collins in the the Dáil yesterday, who, venting frustration, said: “This budget says loudly crisis, what crisis?”
Speaking to an almost empty Dáil chamber, she continued: “I note there are very few here from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. You are not listening, you don’t care, and, to put it bluntly from the amount of calls I have got from constituents over the last 24 hours, you just really don’t give a fuck. It’s just absolutely outrageous that this is actually happening and people are being subjected to this budget.”
Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the most vulnerable in our country had seen little or no support in the budget but would have to bear the brunt of Brexit cuts.
Yes, Brexit is a critical threat which will undoubtedly have massive economic implications, with tens of thousands of job losses.
The Government is right to take the threat of a crash-out no-deal seriously and has handled negotiations with a level-headed responsibility.
However, if this Government had used previous budgets to properly address the dire situation in housing and health, we would be facing the Brexit crisis in a very different light.
Instead of approaching the October 31 deadline with these unresolved emergencies, we could have been facing the threat of no-deal having tackled these lingering issues.