Priorities and pitfalls

As the Dáil returns for another dramatic year, Political Correspondent Shaun Connolly assesses what lies ahead for the parties

Tensions are likely to escalate in the Cabinet over which semi-state assets need to be sold to meet the country’s obligations under the EU/IMF bailout deal; Jan O’Sullivan needs to reposition Labour as a party of the mortgage debt oppressed; Micheál Martin may always be seen as the Mother of Austerity; the United Left Alliance, which includes Socialist Joe Higgins needs to explain what it stands for, rather than what it stands against. Pictures: Maxwells, Nick Bradshaw, Eddie O’Hare, PA

FINE GAEL

AVOIDING a crisis budget before the summer will be the major priority and headache for Finance Minister Michael Noonan, but the omens do not look good.

With the eurozone set to crash back into recession and tax take still well down on predictions, an emergency budget, or “supplementary statement” as it will no doubt be sugar-coatingly named, may well be needed with inevitable bombshells akin to the U-turn on cutting benefits for disabled teenagers and the current pensions furore set to explode out of it.

The €100 household tax should go through on April Fool’s Day without too much resistance thanks to the snoopy-state double-whammy of using ESB data to track down non-payers and then deducting the money directly from wages or benefits.

But tensions in the Cabinet are set to escalate further over which semi-state assets need to be sacrificed on the altar of austerity to please our paymaster in the troika.

Any crisis budget would also smash the issue of the Croke Park agreement back into the centre of politics with Fine Gaelers demanding it be radically “reformed” (ie: scrapped) and Labour determined to remain Pretorian Guard for the public servants.

Long-overdue modernisation of Ireland’s archaic bankruptcy laws and endlessly promised help for those struggling in unpayable mortgage misery have been green-lighted as “priorities” for this Dáil session — but then we’ve been hearing that for the past year without much sign of action.

LABOUR

BACKBENCH discontent over what was widely perceived as a botched budget in terms of Labour’s social justice agenda continues to loom large with cutbacks to specialist school services emerging as the likely lightening rod conductor of discontent. Eamon Gilmore knows he needs to tread more carefully after a series of badly received manoeuvres dented his credibility in the parliamentary party.

After losing three TDs in as many weeks in the run-up to the budget, Mr Gilmore knows he must try to re-assert Labour’s own identity in the Coalition as its poll ratings have collapsed by one third as it looks to the public like the party relishes doling out Fine Gael’s right-wing austerity agenda — as exemplified by Brendan Howlin’s insistence on handing out most of the budget bad news just so he could get a bit of split screen time alongside Mr Noonan.

Newly appointed housing supremo Jan O’Sullivan needs to try and reposition Labour as the party of the mortgage debt oppressed after her petulant predecessor Willie Penrose floundered in a role too big for him.

FIANNA FÁIL

THEY used to be the Soldiers of Destiny, but now they are the Prisoners of the Past.

Forever condemned to relive the night of the disastrous bank bailout, and subsequent day of the IMF sell-out in the minds of angry voters.

Under the lurching leadership of Micheál Martin, FF continues to be trapped in a septic tank of its own making as far as the electorate is concerned.

Indeed, the only thing the party has made headway with in recent months is, er, waste absorption units and its opposition to new regulations and charges for them — hardly the metropolitan vote-winner it needs to re-establish itself in Dublin, which contains one third of all Dáil seats and not a single FF TD. FF can never make capital out of coalition unpopularity as it continually claims Noonan U-turns are validations of its previous policies — so Mr Martin will always be the Mother of Austerity for voters.

There remain some flickers of life — like losing the Dublin West by-election in a respectable fashion rather than a rout — but the farcical nature of the way FF failed to field a presidential candidate left its Sinn Féin flank vulnerable as never before.

SINN FÉIN

THE Dáil stage seems to have diminished Gerry Adams’ stature rather than enhanced it.

He was a back-seat driver in the Belfast Assembly and a no-show at Westminster, so it is hardly surprising he finds the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate so difficult to get a handle on.

His sometimes excruciatingly poor Dáil performances suggest a mid-term retirement would enhance the party’s reach and relevance.

Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald are clearly already vying for the succession, and both are “clean skins” who lack the whiff of “something of the North” about them and will not be dogged by the “murder” questions which undermined Martin McGuinness’s presidential bid.

Doherty is the better Dáil performer with a much tighter grasp of facts and arguments, but McDonald’s strengths are that she brings a Dublin focus to the party and makes a deeply masculine political outfit appeal more to women.

Securing the presidency was never the primary target of the Áras operation; rather, the party viewed the McGuinness bid as a transformative election that would help legitimise Sinn Féin as a mainstream party in the eyes of southern voters. The key objective was to marginalise a weakened Fianna Fáil in the same way it ruthlessly dispatched the SDLP in the North. It will continue to do this by focusing on FF’s old republican bulk and disaffected young and working class voters with its populist anti-austerity mantra that chimes with a growing tide of anti-Europeanism in the country in the run-up to the 2014 local polls.

UNITED LEFT ALLIANCE/INDEPENDENTS

LIKE Sinn Féin, the ULA will only be taken seriously as an alternative to a FG/Labour coalition of convenience if it explains what it is actually for, rather than merely against.

Defining themselves as the anti-austerity defenders of the poor will only go so far without the backing of a credible plan to galvanise economic growth. Hopes of its TDs leading a popular revolt against the household tax on the back of Jailhouse Joe Higgins returning to prison for non-payment — like his stretch inside over bin charges — have now receded after the Government’s sneaky move to take payments from income sources. A more realistic eurozone approach to sovereign debt could enhance their anti-austerity stance.

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