Special report: Seven key areas for any prospective programme for government

Ireland, and the world, was a different place on February 9.
Special report: Seven key areas for any prospective programme for government

Additional reporting by Daniel McConnell, Aoife Moore and Juno McEnroe.

Ireland, and the world, was a different place on February 9.

As the events of that Sunday unfolded across Ireland, a number of things became clear in the context of the previous day’s general election.

The RTÉ exit poll that indicated a surge of votes for Sinn Féin and the left proved to be true and, with support for themselves and Fianna Fáil at historic lows, Fine Gael members were measuring the cushions on the opposition benches.

But that was then, and the number of TDs needed for a left-leaning government simply haven’t materialised, and neither Civil War party wants to talk to Sinn Féin, so a historically unthinkable grand coalition, buttressed by the Green Party and likely a few Independents, is the current most likely government.

What a difference a global pandemic makes. Back in February, there was €11bn in fiscal space for parties to pledge to spend in various ways which has morphed into a €30bn deficit, a deficit which will make formulating a programme, not to mention selling it to party members, a tough task.

But even in the pre-Covid days, when we went to pubs and nobody argued over reproductive numbers or exactly what constituted two metres, this would have been a difficult programme for government to put together.

You might remember that, before the election, before the virus, and before any talks had begun, Ireland had 10,000 homeless people, around 500 people a day on hospital trolleys, and deep dissatisfaction with the raising of the pension age, as well as the twin spectres of Brexit and climate change hanging over us.

Our general national stoicism in the face of a global pandemic does not change the fact that post-Covid Ireland will face deep, long-lasting, and engrained problems, ones that would not have been easily fixed even with the financial wiggle room we once had.

Negotiating teams from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party face an unenviable task — to draw up a programme for government which can guide the country through the next 12 to 18 months of uncertainty, to the following years of possible recovery that will:

  • Satisfy the demand for change that was spelled out in February’s election;
  • Put the economy back on a steadier, fairer footing;
  • Not rely on the swingeing austerity meted out during the most recent once-in-a-lifetime economic collapse.

In squaring those three circles, it is clear that something, from somewhere, has to give.

The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy document has committed to neither raising income taxes nor cutting welfare. Both parties want to implement Sláintecare.

The Greens want investment in climate transition and housing.

Not all of those things can be done at the same time over the next five years.

It is possible that borrowing from the European Central Bank can allow workers to keep their take-home pay intact and for social welfare payments at pre-pandemic levels.

But it is unlikely that Ireland can make all of the investments it wants in housing, in healthcare, and in pensions while maintaining tax rates as the tax base narrows and demands for welfare rise.

Remember, this is a country which built more homes last year than it had in a decade and was still thousands short of meeting demand.

This is a country where a generation which suffered mass emigration and unemployment a decade ago still feels left behind.

It is a country where rural communities believe the Government is too Dublin-centric and where Dubs point to crowded trams and record rents.

It is a country which has made huge strides since 2010 and has an internationally enviable quality of life on paper, but which still has major challenges.

And it is the country which these three parties want to govern for the next five years.

The question of how to do that when the three can be frequently so far apart on key issues is one that will ask much of those on each negotiating team.

Among the Civil War parties, there is some skepticism that the Green Party’s “agenda” — helping Ireland play its part in averting a climate catastrophe — is incompatible with straitened times.

Some the parties’ rural TDs fear an urban-fixated environmental plan which would wreak havoc on their communities and their constituencies.

To even get the Greens to the table, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had to give assurances that the country would cut its carbon emissions by 7% a year, a figure which caused palpitations among some TDs.

But to cast the Greens as an unruly interloper into otherwise agreeable talks would be wrong.

There will be pitfalls where Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael diverge, with the public sector pay deal set to be one major bone of contention.

Fine Gael ministers have already sounded the alarm that planned pay increases for 300,000 public staff are “not credible” in the current climate.

However, Fianna Fáil is the party of social partnership, the party of the public servant.

Its members reacted poorly to the cabinet members’ warning, arguing that those frontline and backroom workers who have steered and will continue to steer Ireland through the crisis should not be forgotten.

That difference of opinion is no mere trifle — that pay deal is likely to amount to hundreds of millions over the lifetime of the agreement and will constitute just another resource which will be fought for by each party.

Those discussions and negotiations are where the final shape of the document that is presented to party members will be taken and it is the party who “wins” them who will have the easiest time selling coalition to its members.

But to even get to that stage, there is much more teasing out to be done, many more long days of argument on seemingly small points, and then five years of trying to deliver.

As some might say, or not as the case may be, a lot has been done.

There’s much more to do and among them are these seven key areas for any prospective programme for government.

Taxation: Major battleground in party jostling

The area of taxation will without question be one of the major battlegrounds between the parties during government formation talks aimed at forming a programme for government.

If and when that government is formed, the annual changing of taxes on budget day in October every year, will see that battleground returned to again and again.

Fine Gael has made its position clear as to what it sees the role of tax in helping the economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has committed to targeted tax breaks in certain sectors as a means of kickstarting sectors devastated like tourism, manufacturing and hospitality.

In their joint framework document, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil committed to no increases in income tax and/or universal social charge and no cuts to established core social welfare rates.

Many economists and seasoned political commentators have grave doubt over whether such a promise is still viable.

However, expect sparks to fly around the moves to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 7% annually.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have committed to an increase in the carbon tax, in line with the agreed cross-party trajectory of €80 per tonne by 2030.

Will that be enough to satisfy the Green Party?

— Daniel McConnell

Climate: Red-line issue has power to make or break Greens

Climate has already proved it will be a continuous bone of contention if these parties end up in cabinet together.

The Green Party campaigned on a message of urgent climate calamity, and has made it clear it will only enter government if it can see a clear path to implementing policies to remedy Ireland’s dire environmental performance.

Despite signing up to the 7% reduction in emissions, Fine Gael has now called on the Green Party to educate it on how it can be done — a shift of responsibility that won’t go unnoticed by Green politicos and the press if it continues in government.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are already coming under significant pressure from their rural members to protect farming, with issues such as culling the national herd and a long-sought after Green policy of banning live exports, repeatedly being labelled a “threat to rural Ireland”.

Likewise, this government formation may depend on the support of various rural Independent TDs, who will reject any major changes to their constituents’ way of life.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have committed to tackling climate change, but environmental experts and the Green Party have criticised both parties’ policies on the crisis as “tinkering around the edges”.

This hurdle could be the most difficult one to clear, and the one for which the Green Party electorally, and the nation as a whole, will pay the price for in the event of a disappointing outcome.

— Aoife Moore

Education: Harmonious on supports for those with disability

Education hit the headlines at the outset of government formation talks after it was reported that a Fianna Fáil policy paper recommended that the party replace the Department of Children to make room for a new Department of Higher Education.

The new department is unsurprisingly favoured by leader Micheál Martin, as his party takes pride in its strong reputation and history in expanding education in Ireland.

Fianna Fáil is likely to jockey for this portfolio in any cabinet that emerges in the coming months for the same reason.

Enthusiasm for this new department is unlikely to be mirrored by the other two parties, which are said to be committed to the existing department.

All parties say they are committed to reducing pupil-teacher ratios, however as the country stares down the barrel of another recession, this is likely the first can to be kicked down the road, as more pressing matters take hold.

Likewise, for the ending of pay inequality in education under the two-tier pay structure that exists.

Education Minister Joe McHugh promised to examine the issue during the election but, with a deficit of €30bn, it is unlikely this will remain a top priority.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens have all previously committed to more funding support to people with disabilities in the education system and an increase in capitation payments, which could spell some harmony within the three negotiators, despite pay restraints.

— Aoife Moore

Health: Drastic overhaul needed in virus wake

Health is now a lead talking point among the parties.

Emergency responses to pandemics such as Covid-19 will have to be included.

The HSE made no secret of the need to rip up health plans and of huge reforms needed, especially on how non-virus services such as cancer care will work.

This will be costly, alongside new costs such as the estimated €1bn annual bill for personal protective equipment.

A priority for all three parties in coalition will be universal healthcare and a one-tier system.

After the pandemic forced the Government to take over private health services, there is a sense of no going back, with many saying this could be Ireland’s NHS, the system that operates in the UK.

The Greens also want mental health prioritised, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Then Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have pledged in their joint document to increase bed numbers in hospitals and to prioritise paediatric and women’s healthcare.

With huge bills for virus responses and an expected shift to public and State-paid healthcare, some priorities may be dropped.

— Juno McEnroe

Economy: Lots of time and lots of money to get going again

Key to economic recovery after the pandemic will be getting people back to work, keeping businesses open and jump-starting growth again.

After Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s comparison last week of the situation being akin to the deep recession of the 1980s, this will all take time. And lots of money.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael jointly propose focusing on business supports and foreign investment, all mapped out through a national economic plan.

There will be much borrowing to stimulate growth and that is aside from the estimated €30bn deficit predicted this year.

However, how do you do that by not cutting budgets or raising taxes, which the two have promised not to?

There is some expectation that remote working may help firms cut costs while there will be a bigger drive to boost rural growth and the circular economy in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.

However, the EU’s post Covid-19 so-called Marshall Plan will be central to the recovery, as will the country’s ability to continue to borrow to fight its way out of a deep recession.

With such financial debt, plans to defer pension age rises, tax cuts and even some green projects, such as new light rail projects in Cork and Galway, may have to be dropped.

The public sector wage bill is also likely to come under scrutiny and other areas that can reduce spending or borrowing.

— Juno McEnroe

Agriculture: Boost for rural Ireland as homework pays off

One of the big learnings from the Covid-19 crisis is the ability of many people to work from home successfully.

Government formation talks will seek to recognise this as part of a plan to empower and truly rejuvenate rural Ireland.

We are likely to see a commitment to mandate public sector employers, colleges, and other public bodies to move to 20% home and remote working in 2021 and provide incentives for private sector employers to do likewise.

There is a strong perception that rural Ireland did not recover as fast as Dublin after the last economic crash, and all three parties have spoken of the need to redress this imbalance.

It is likely, therefore, that we will see parties commit to prioritising balanced regional development across Ireland in policy-making, ensuring that every part of the country has a chance to prosper.

Part of this will be the implementation of the National Broadband Plan.

Sources have said there will be a great deal of emphasis placed on recognising the importance of agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and other sectors that support balanced regional development and employment in rural Ireland in the final plan.

— Daniel McConnell

Housing: Parties agree on need for increased supply

While all three parties have differed on how to deliver housing in recent years, all three are agreed on one thing: Supply needs to be increased.

The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil framework includes a “mission” named ‘Housing For All’.

This section of the document pledges to tackle land prices as well as providing a number of stimuli for house building.

Also included is putting the Land Development Agency on a legal footing to allow it to deliver affordable, social, and cost-rental housing.

However, some in the housing industry have warned this is not the “silver bullet” that some politicians treat it as.

The Greens, for their part, want public lands used to deliver this type of housing.

It is likely that the Rebuilding Ireland strategy, the cornerstone of housing policy in Ireland since 2016, will remain in place but that its targets will be reconfigured.

The programme is expected to commit to even more ambitious numbers — Fianna Fáil has said that it wants social housing delivery to top 50,000 by 2025.

In 2018, that figure was 8,442.

Pilot projects in cost-rental in cities will also likely be included, as well as plans to create a pathway to long-term, secure rental tenancies.

— Paul Hosford

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