Fine Gael’s vow to scrap USC ‘not achievable’, claims Micheál Martin

Fine Gael’s promise to scrap the hated Universal Social Charge (USC) is “not achievable” within the next five years, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has claimed.

Ministers will this week open discussions with their Fianna Fáil counterparts about the details of the budget, with both parties already at loggerheads over how the near-€1bn in fiscal space should be spent.

Speaking at the close of Fianna Fáil’s think-in in Carlow yesterday, Mr Martin raised questions about Fine Gael’s election promise to phase out USC for workers during the lifetime of the Dáil.

“Before the election, Fine Gael were trumpeting that this was possible, that they were going to do it,” he said. “In the immediate aftermath of the election, they resiled quite significantly from their position.

“I don’t believe it’s achievable within five years. We don’t believe it is the right policy or right approach. We need to keep a balance to making sure we can invest in services, in the infrastructure of the country as well and also give people a break. So it’s not a position we agree with, it’s nor provided for in the confidence and supply agreement.”

Overall provision in the budget of €1bn was “modest”, he said. But he added investment was needed in health, housing and education.

Mr Martin also rejected criticism from the EU over government plans to reintroduce a first time buyers’ grant. The post-bailout report suggests the move will add “upward pressure” to the housing market.

The Government is set to announce the grant in the budget, which could see first-time buyers getting tax credits for amounts of up to €10,000 or even more. Fianna Fáil also promised this grant this in the election.

Mr Martin yesterday said young buyers needed help getting a home.

There was a “huge crisis” in housing and the capacity of young couples to buy, he said, and a first time buyers grant was “perfectly legitimate”.

Fianna Fáil TDs and senators yesterday discussed Brexit, how credit unions could support social housing, and the economy.

Earlier, Mr Martin told Newstalk the budget had to include a “realistic increase” in the pension. While senior Fianna Fáil figures say this could mean €5 a week extra for the elderly, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said such an increase will eat up all his spending.

Mr Martin also reiterated that increased funding was needed for third level education in the budget. While Fianna Fáil did not support the idea of student loans, “something has to happen” in relation to the Casells report, which pushes for more funding in the sector.

Mr Martin, though, did not give a commitment that childcare supports would be prioritised by his party for the budget.

Meanwhile, Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe will discuss capital spending projects as well as next month’s budget when he appears at the Oireachtas budgetary oversight committee today.

He will also this week ask ministers to reduce their budget spending demands from the €3bn in total in requests submitted so far.

Meanwhile, former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Brian Cowen last night launched Cinnlínte: Saol an Iriseora, a book written by political journalist Deaglán de Bréadún about his career and media work over recent decades.

Mr Cowen told reporters he was surprised at how quick people had “rushed” to dismiss the future of Fianna Fáil after its 2011 election meltdown.

He also said that he thought Nama had got its “job done” and it looked now on course to make a return.

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