Juggling questions from reporters at the opening of the party’s pre-Dáil conference in Co Carlow, Micheál Martin artfully sidestepped queries about the budget, Fine Gael’s time in office and that old chestnut, water charges.
However, surrounded by his newer, younger TDs and senators, the smiling leader unwittingly disclosed what Fianna Fáil is really about when it comes to propping up the Fine Gael-minority government.
“We’re not in opposition, sorry, we’re not in government, we wanted to be in government and didn’t get the numbers,” said Mr Martin, correcting himself to the giggles of reporters.
However, of course this is the beauty of the arrangement for the revitalised party, whose think-in this week is a lot more energetic with the party’s 44 TDs compared to recent years, where the conference was mostly a male-dominated, awkward, and hushed affair.
Mr Martin and his party effectively are controlling Enda Kenny’s Government, calling the shots when it comes to matters such as water charges, bin charges, and of course the budget.
And so the “biggest test” lies ahead in this support deal, as Mr Martin wrote in the Irish Examiner this week: The budget and what Fianna Fáil wants out of it.
So what is on the so-called Opposition’s wishlist?
Fianna Fáil is prioritising the funding of services over tax cuts out of the near €1bn available. Mr Martin wants the reintroduction of the National Treatment Purchase Fund to tackle hospital waiting lists. The party will likely push for a higher amount than the €15m agreed by the Government for this.
Another issue is the prioritisation of third-level funding. Fianna Fáil is expected to push for €100m for the sector next year, in line with its general election manifesto. However, the party does not favour the return of third-level fees, Mr Martin admitted yesterday. It is therefore difficult to understand where these funds might come from.
Elsewhere, supports for the elderly, particularly increases in the state pension, form part of its budget proposals. Social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea has publicly called for a €5 rise in the weekly pension. However, such a rise would take up all of Social Protection minister Leo Varadkar’s budget funds. Some compromise is needed. Nonetheless, Mr Martin said yesterday, pensioners “needed a break”. We can expect the State pension to dominate budget debate in the days ahead.
In the meantime, a feel-good factor permeated the conference yesterday. Mr Martin also did not hold back, when asked did he want Enda Kenny’s job.
“Yes, I would like someday to be Taoiseach of this country, but that depends on the Irish people,” he said.