We repeat the mistakes of the last crash in the name of ‘pragmatism’

Leo Varadkar knows that the Greens have eaten into a middle-class Fine Gael vote, writes Gerard Howlin

We repeat the mistakes of the last crash in the name of ‘pragmatism’

Leo Varadkar knows that the Greens have eaten into a middle-class Fine Gael vote, writes Gerard Howlin

OUR budget and their Brexit are joined at the hip. Neither manoeuvre is a main event. Both are planned tactically, to better facilitate the strategic objective of a general election.

Funnelling an increase in carbon taxes into environmental projects and community gain is, in electoral terms, a water charges avoidance manoeuvre. It is that essential part of pre-electoral manoeuvring which preoccupied the Taoiseach at the UN — not saving the Earth.

What is being avoided at all costs is the ruckus that attended water charges, and is clearly threatened by most of the same coalition of the unwilling on carbon charge increases when they arrive.

The pragmatism of Irish politics is truly admirable. Compared to the ideological cesspit in Britain, we are an isle of reason and specialise especially in the reciprocal gesture.

Nowhere was that brotherly love more apparent than in Dublin City Council this week when a grand coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, and Solidarity, with some Independent friends, voted to lower further an already modest property charge, by the maximum 15% allowed by law. This will cost the city €12m.

On the plus side, the north inner city where I live was always unkempt, and we are well used to the litter and the dog poo. The homeless are hardy. Mollycoddling them with emergency shelter and free sleeping bags only encourages them. Dublin wouldn’t be what it is without pot-holed pavements.

And then there is O’Connell St. It’s a boulevard devoted to burger joints and knicker shops. And we love it. We wouldn’t change a thing, and now we won’t.

What won’t change either is the well-rehearsed anger about most of the above, from many who have given a political lifetime to eviscerating the tax base which public services depend on.

Lest there be any misunderstanding on the breath of culpability, it was Fine Gael who abandoned water charges. It was Simon Coveney who ran up the white flag in the immediate aftermath of the last general election. It was Fianna Fáil who pushed them over the edge. It was Sinn Féin who flipped Fianna Fáil, and it was Solidarity, in the guise of Anti-Austerity Alliance, who spooked Sinn Féin. That paradigm remains the default political reflex since.

It is not the lesson of the economic crash that remains imprinted — it is the lesson of the political consequence of dealing with it that is uppermost.

Our next budget comes off the back of four budgets where most of the salient lessons of the economic crash were ignored. Our tax base is, once again, dangerously narrow and over-reliant on one a single source: Corporation tax.

We are having a Brexit budget, because Britain is Brexiting. Yesterday’s decision in the British Supreme Court was damning for Boris Johnson. He is now again a prisoner in a parliament he can’t command, and because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, can’t escape, because he can’t muster the two-thirds majority required to enable an election before it is due. The irony is that the novelty of a supreme court adjudicating the outflow of the worse novelty of a referendum is the culmination of decades of undoing of the unwritten British constitution. The United Kingdom is three separate kingdoms, under one monarch, unified by acts of parliament in Scotland and Ireland into one parliament at Westminster. The power of the king gradually devolved onto the king’s ministers.

First devolution to Scotland and then the introduction of the referendum undid the unitary state and fatally undermined the sovereignty of parliament. This fact was highlighted by Ken Clarke in his great speech a few weeks ago.

Further novelties of removing the Lord Chancellor as the head of the judiciary and as the presiding officer in the House of Lords have all come back to haunt the British government. With parliament returning, the drama will escalate.

But I think the danger of a no-deal Brexit is receding. Boris is trapped in office with no power.Jeremy Corbyn has again demonstrated the toxicity of his politics, and on Europe his latent Brexiteer instincts are a but not well-disguised.

A hard Brexit may be receding slightly, but the threat is real enough for the Irish Government to rightly plan for it. The pity is they pawned so much of our capacity with profligacy over the past four years.

Budget negotiations are now intensifying, however, and one theme permeates. That is — carbon charges.

The fear in Government is that in this last budget, on the eve of an election, they will ignite public anger and that protest will fuel political anger. There is no room for manoeuvre. There will be no time for things to cool. The iron that is put into the fire on budget day will still be burning hot on election day. The delicious tension on this is that Fianna Fáil are, to their credit, a carbon-charge party too. They are as wary and as cagey. The road to political hell is paved with good intentions. Only the most astute handling will land carbon charges alive, without causingsignificant political damage.

Leo Varadkar knows that the Greens have eaten into a middle-class Fine Gael vote. Green-leaning fingered Blueshirts are virtue-signalling, high-end consumers. They are very concerned, you see. And they probably think that voting Green is the beginning and end of their contribution to saving the planet. But still, it’s something. Bringing them back to the auld decency they came from is mission-critical electorally for Varadkar. That’s what he was at in New York, and that what the ban on oil exploration in the future is about.

I stand to be corrected, but I don’t recall a single barrel of oil ever being brought ashore from an Irish oil well. Our finds have been gas. Exploration there is not affected. But what is, if oil is there, is Ireland’s energy security in an uncertain world, while we transition to renewables over the coming decades?

But there is an election next year, and the warming effect sought for now is different. Leo is furiously greenwashing. Bertie did it before the 2007 election, by the way. He lured the Greens into Government afterwards.

The problem for Fianna Fáil is that because they had the fortitude to wait and wait, they are within touching distance of the prize. But the apple won’t just fall into their lap. Peak Leo is long over. His political skills and appeal are frequently submerged in Government. But he is not just all socks and no substance. He can set the debate, and his Brexit has still to happen. A carefully calibrated carbon charge increase is required, but if that’s it for Fianna Fáil, it’s not enough. They need a signature achievement, an indelible marker on this budget. Preferably that should by signalled by a serious row on the chosen subject. There are several to choose from.

All the while, the renewed drama at Westminster will set the scene setting for what we have to do here.

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