QUESTIONED about the possibility of a new Tallaght Strategy last week, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny spoke candidly – arguably too candidly.
The original Tallaght Strategy had seen Fine Gael support cutbacks implemented by the minority Fianna Fáil government in the late 80s in order to rescue the economy.
Tallaght had been good for the country but bad for Fine Gael, Mr Kenny said, and as a result, there would be no Tallaght 2.
“Listen, I was a member of the Fine Gael party when we had Tallaght 1,” he said. “The problem for Fine Gael at that time was that, while it was wonderful from a national perspective to support the Tallaght Strategy, Fine Gael had no power or influence over it and suffered at the polls as a consequence.”
It was an honest answer but did him no favours. Fine Gael is trying to paint itself as the responsible Opposition party acting in the national interest. But Mr Kenny was essentially admitting Fine Gael would do what any party does – act in its self-interest.
Yesterday’s statement on the budgetary situation was somewhat of a balancing act of both positions.
On one hand, Fine Gael clearly strove for the “responsible Opposition” title – by agreeing with the Government that more than €3 billion of cutbacks were required in the December Budget as a first step towards reducing the deficit to 3% of GDP by 2014. On the other, Fine Gael sought to protect its own interests, by making clear it would make its own decisions on where the cutbacks should be made and insisting there would be no Tallaght 2 to prop up the Government.
“Fine Gael believes that the adjustment needs to be frontloaded but only to the point where it delivers lower international interest rates on Government borrowing, at the cost of the minimum impact on growth. This will be a difficult judgement call but Fine Gael will make an independent decision and will not be bound by the Government’s targets which they intend setting in November,” the statement said.
But while admitting that the budget cuts have to go beyond the original €3bn target, Fine Gael won’t say what they believe the new figure should be.
Finance spokesman Michael Noonan said this was simply because the party wasn’t yet in a position to do so, as relevant information from the Government isn’t yet forthcoming.
This is true, because it was only yesterday that the Government confirmed it would be writing to the Opposition parties offering them the opportunity to “see the books”, as it were.
Yet there’s also a clear element of politics to Fine Gael’s position. They want, and need, to be seen as the responsible Opposition party, the Government-in-waiting. But they’re not going to make the mistake of helping the existing Government by revealing their own hand first. Fine Gael will wait until the Government says in mid-November exactly how much it envisages should be cut in each of the next four budgets. Fine Gael will then say whether it agrees or disagrees.
So Fine Gael are holding back to an extent. But still, yesterday’s statement was a pretty clear declaration of principles. The public now knows that, even if there were an election tomorrow and Fine Gael won, the December budget would still be just as painful. It also knows that Fine Gael will stick to the 2014 target for reducing the deficit.
It’s hard to know if the statement will help the party though, struggling as it is in the opinion polls. On one hand, Fine Gael is being pretty straight with the electorate. On the other, it’s a fairly grim statement with little in the way of optimism.
But one thing it should certainly do is up the heat on Labour. Eamon Gilmore’s party also agrees that the deficit has to be reduced to 3% of GDP by 2014. But it is insisting that it would not exceed €3bn of cutbacks in December were it in power. Given the further deterioration in the public finances, it’s hard to reconcile those two positions. Labour will now be under some pressure to explain precisely how they can be reconciled.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved