GERARD HOWLIN: As wary Martin dithers, Fine Gael and Varadkar can make luck count

As lucky generals go, Leo Varadkar is lucky out.

He was born at the right time, in the right family, and with a sexual orientation to happenstance become a symbol of a changing Ireland.

I am sure it didn’t always seem that way, but there you are. Things have turned out well for him. And now he is deeply lucky in his opponents. He looks and feels like the sort of people enough of us want to be, to be a leader for Ireland now.

Luckiest of all, in Micheál Martin he has found an opposing politician on the verge of fatally underestimating the difficulties the Taoiseach faces. In underestimating them, Martin is set to allow Varadkar to break out of Government Buildings and run towards the uplands of an election, before he can be starved of credibility.

This will be a fatal error of judgment on Martin’s part. But it is of others’ mistakes that lucky generals are made.

The bravado of Varadkar’s performance, and of the positions he has adopted, is only an event away from being bluster.

The extent of the gamble taken, and the doubling down on the original bet, is easily totted up by adding last month’s budget to last weekend’s ard fheis speech. Notwithstanding that, according to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the health service has “consistently failed to manage within its annual budget allocation by significant amounts”, it was outrageously gifted another €1bn for 2019.

There are no thanks from nurses, however, and no shame either for their contribution to the stasis of a system that is overfunded but which underdelivers. Presumably, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation treats with disdain the warning from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe on Monday that their 12% pay claim, costing €300m, would compromise public pay and budgetary policy.

Having broken the mould on spending policy on budget day, the minister has little credibility left.

It wasn’t just the amount of money flushed through a broken system, using cash with the efficiency of water mains which, at their worst, lost more than half of the water pumped in between reservoir and the tap. It is that, unlike water, where there is a plan, on health there isn’t.

You have to understand the sign language.

The signs are clear.

The Government doesn’t believe Sláintecare is the answer and isn’t supporting it. The first sign was the interminable delay in doing anything.

The second, more telling sign is that when something was done it was parked administratively within the Department of Health, which itself is a systemic part of the problem.

Tellingly, it was not placed in the Department of the Taoiseach as recommended, where, in theory, it might have had the space and strength to deliver change. Lastly, and this is where tragedy becomes comedy, in a year where over €1bn extra was found to flush through the rusting pipes of an old health system, all of €20m was given to Sláintecare. That’s lemonade and crisps money.

On Health, Varadkar, himself an alumni of the department, bet a billion euro — most of which came in a one-off payment of corporation tax — on a one-off political punt that this is enough to stave off a looming political threat until next summer. After that, because fundamentally nothing will have changed, and largesse on this scale can’t be found again, all bets are off.

Doubling down on that last Saturday, he promised the Fine Gael ard fheis he would increase the point at which people pay the top rate of tax to €50,000 for a single person or €100,000 for a two-income couple over five budgets.

It’s clever in theory and, provided it’s never tested in reality, it could work well politically. Budgetary projections, based on fine weather economically, do allow a tax package of about €600m every year for the next five years.

But if anything changes, this horse won’t run, and the bet is lost. Its potency is its short-term political promise. What is unsaid in the guff about not repeating the mistakes of the past is that in gutting the income tax base further, without substantial widening of the tax base elsewhere, we are in fact repeating the very worst mistake of the past.

Unlike any other functioning economy, we hardly tax the lower-paid at all. We don’t do water charges. An anaemic property tax is set to be weakened further and carbon tax has been kicked down the road.

Varadkar’s weakness is underlined by the fact that what was done for Health this year can’t be repeated. What he promises on income tax can’t be seriously attempted next year if there is any sort of setback, not to speak of Brexit.

Any tax cuts at all would have to come in parallel with continuing crises in health and in housing. And that will change the flavour of the ice cream.

On housing, over the next two to three years at least, it is certainly getting worse, before it gets better. On one reckoning, Varadkar is the man of the moment, and he is. On another, he is a man in a corner and time is not on his side.

Just at the moment of greatest peril, Martin is riding to his rescue. After two and a half years of usually steely continence, there has been a colossal failure of nerve in Fianna Fáil. It is a party for whom the past is still partially present tense.

The overhang of history may have abated, but it’s not over. It continues not just in reduced ranks, but in a still thinner political capacity compared to Fine Gael. Evidence of that is the lack of cunning and fortitude required to wait.

Reluctance, tending towards a refusal to give Varadkar what he says he wants — an agreed election date in 2020 — is remarkably foolish. This isn’t what he wants, it is what he fears most. He should be gifted it, with perhaps the added consideration of continuing for two more budgets to 2021.

Time tarnishes. Only time could tell if it would be enough, but after the last budget and last weekend’s speech, the Taoiseach has given hostages to fortune. The thing to do now is that which, in politics, is supremely difficult and most underrated — do nothing.

Instead, there is every sign that Martin and Fianna Fáil have taken the bait, walked into the trap, and are set to offer an excuse for a spring election by not agreeing to one in 2020 or later. Housing won’t have become much worse, Health may temporarily have improved, and untested promises of tax cuts can be brandished ahead of events that likely will make them look foolish.

In giving an excuse for an election earlier and not later, Martin is leading his party into a contest on his opponent’s terms. If you can’t set the question, you won’t win the argument.

After two and a half years of steely continence, there has been a colossal failure of nerve in Fianna Fáil.


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