Noonan ‘no martinet’ as he vows to sticks to sums

FINANCE Minister, Michael Noonan found a seldom-used and cryptic noun to describe his approach to the budget when he told reporters yesterday, he was “no martinet”.

The word (deriving from 17th century French rather than the Fair of Glin) means he is not a strict disciplinarian, or someone who sticks rigidly to rules. “I’m not ideological, I was just good at arithmetic when I was in primary school,” he said.

Roughly translated, he was trying to get the message across that he is not bound by the €3.1bn in budget cuts that have previously been agreed. Nor is he ideologically fixated when it comes to imposing austerity or “cutting for the sake of it”, as Labour party leader, Eamon Gilmore, put it.

Mr Noonan was also communicating he will be directed by the sums and is not going to slacken off on efforts to steer the public finances towards the targets agreed with the troika and watched closely by the financial markets.

The minister was confessing to his strongest political characteristic — that of a staunch pragmatist — which will dictate whatever decision is made on the size of the adjustment in the four weeks between now and the budget.

His realism stands as a backdrop to the coalition’s two parliamentary parties who gathered yesterday for their annual “think-ins” ahead of the new Dáil term.

While Labour and Fine Gael backbenchers battle over their diverging social and political ideologies to argue their €1bn difference in the scale of the spending cuts and tax increases that should be imposed, Mr Noonan gave his strongest indication yet that a compromise based on sound arithmetic would be reached.

Eamon Gilmore — while not giving a figure — has consistently said that the €1bn in savings from the promissory note deal should be used to ease up on the €3.1bn previously planned for Budget 2014. Some in his parliamentary party have suggested this should be as low as €2bn.

Speaking in Limerick yesterday before travelling to the party’s conference in Co Laois, Mr Noonan alluded to a moving of the goalposts, saying: “Somewhere between €2.5bn and €3bn is the adjustment and that’s a tough budget.”

Writing in the Irish Examiner last month, Mr Noonan hinted at a scaled-back adjustment, saying the actual sum would be decided when all the economic data was made available. But yesterday was the first time he mentioned any figure other than the €3.1bn.

While he softened his stance on the cuts needed, he was also careful to temper his words so as not to anger his own backbenchers, already worried that the party was giving in to Labour on the issue.

“We are coming to an end now of the correction period and we have to get out of the programme, get back into the markets, so it’s no time for backing off.

“The big issue is getting out of the bail out and getting back in to the full market financing and whatever it takes to do that, is the correct figure,” he said.

It was clear from his comments to that he is attempting to shift the focus on the scale of the budget adjustment needed away from a Labour versus Fine Gael issue, but rather what is best to achieve a “primary surplus”.

The “primary balance” is the annual borrowing figure before account is taken of national debt repayments — and whether or not it will be in surplus will largely depend on growth figures due out on Thursday.

This was also raised by Transport Minister, Leo Varadkar, who told yesterday’s Irish Examiner: “I think there’s too much focus on the €3.1bn figure.”

Mr Varadkar also made the point that “the important thing is to deliver a primary surplus next year for the first time since 2007.” That would send a strong message not only to the financial markets but also to companies thinking of investing and creating jobs in Ireland, he argued.

Also hinting at figures, he said: “Whether it’s €2.4bn or €2.7bn or €3.1bn — I don’t think anyone is going to be thanking the Government for taking 2.4 out of the economy rather than 2.7, I don’t think that’s the point at all.”

Environment Minister, Phil Hogan, was also on message, saying there was “some room for manoeuvre” in the budget.

In their closed meeting yesterday afternoon, Fine Gael backbenchers were planning to send a message to Mr Noonan that “it is not the time to take the foot off the pedal” and that easing up on the €3.1bn billion of cuts and tax increases previously agreed would be “less than satisfactory.” But the Finance Minister has already laid down a marker that the arithmetic — and not the ideology of either party — will dictate his decision.

This allows him to give in partly to Labour demands for a softer budget while still presenting it as another success on Fine Gael’s road to exit the bailout and return to the markets.

While budget discussions dominated the first day of its think-in, the Fine Gael leadership today faces the task of injecting more enthusiasm into the TDs and Senators for the campaign to abolish the Seanad.

Jobs Minister, Richard Bruton, who is heading the party’s campaign, will urge parliamentary party members to ramp up their efforts around the country in the crucial two weeks ahead.

But his efforts won’t be helped by the announcement of the party’s leader in the Seanad, Maurice Cummins, that he will be voting No on Oct 4, and will not take part in the Government’s campaign.

Mr Cummins is not the only one reluctant about canvassing for the proposition which some do not believe in, or feel that it will limit their own political career.

To add to this, some TDs and senators plan to use the discussion on the referendum to argue that Dáil reform measures — announced by the Taoiseach last week — do not go far enough.

Despite some headaches, Enda Kenny will emerge from the ‘think-ins’ as the party leader with least to worry about from his own parliamentary party: No potential leaders threatening his position, no potential for backbench revolt and a finance minister with the political skill to hold the coalition together through the difficult budget that lays ahead.

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