Micheál Martin talks to Elaine Loughlin about his demands for supporting the Government, in areas such as the carers’ allowance, class sizes, and youth mental health
IN the panicked days in the lead-up to Budget 2017, senior members of Fianna Fáil were seen scurrying in and out of the Department of Finance.
While Government ministers set out their stalls and fought for a bigger slice of the pie, it was Micheál Martin and his party who had to be kept sweet.
Mr Martin may not sit in a coveted office on the ministerial corridor in Government Buildings, but he wields significant power from his comfortable wood-paneled office in the LH 2000 wing of Leinster House.
It will be the Cork South Central TD who will ultimately decide whether or not this October’s budget passes and he is already putting together a shopping list.
Reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in classrooms, increasing the carers’ allowance, and pumping more funds into mental health services, as well as third-level education, are among his top priorities, and the future of the current Government will be dependent on the delivery of these demands.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Martin is confident he can strike a deal with Leo Varadkar’s side ahead of October’s budget.
“There has been a budget passed,” he says. “We believe there should be another budget, we don’t see why the next budget should fail but there will be tough negotiations and discussions.”
The confidence and supply agreement, entered into last year, states that Fianna Fáil will support the Fine Gael-led minority government over three budgets.
However, Mr Martin now remains coy on whether he could support Budget 2019, despite a promise laid down in the confidence and supply agreement.
Fianna Fáil are undoubtedly aware that while there will be limited money to spend next year, the following year will see a significant loosening of the purse strings, and what party would like to present their rivals with a give-away budget ahead of an election?
Mr Martin says: “Our confidence and supply is for three budgets, obviously given politics and the nature of it, we will take one budget at a time and there will obviously be challenges trying to work out — as there were last year — trying to work out various emphases, pressures from different parties, and with the Independent Alliance in government as well.
“We will be looking at [it], obviously there are broader fiscal parameters which we have signed up to in the confidence and supply.”
For now, Mr Martin is focused on delivering significant improvements in the upcoming budget.
While Mr Varadkar has already signalled he will be increasing the State pension, Mr Martin has a number of other priorities.
When his foot soldiers march back to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe in the autumn, “super-sized” classrooms will be among the non-negotiable items on their list.
“One issue we will be focusing on is pupil-teacher ratio, primary school pupil-teacher ratio,” says Mr Martin. “It’s in the confidence and supply agreement as an issue to be reduced and we will be looking to reduce that in the budget.
“There are too many super-sized classrooms throughout the country, these are classes of over 30 and over 35. I think there needs to be a move to reduce the size of those classes in primary schools.”
He adds that the the pupil-teacher ratio should be reduced by one point this year and at least another one in 2019.
Fianna Fáil was last year left enraged by the false promises around mental health, an issue that it had fought hard on. The €35m funding injection outlined, turned into a much lower €18m — Mr Martin will not be making the same mistake this year.
“We have had issues with the Government in the first 12 months on mental health, [Fianna Fáil spokesman on mental health] James Browne has been working hard on the area,” says Mr Martin.
“We are maintaining our focus on mental health as an opposition party.”
For Fianna Fáil, the biggest worry is around Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which have seen waiting lists jump 28% in just six months, with 2,908 young people waiting for an appointment at the end of May.
For Mr Martin, all avenues need to be looked at to take on the consultants and professionals needed to treat children with mental health issues and he has visited a number of organisations including Jigsaw and Pieta House in recent times to get their view.
“The non-governmental side can do a lot as well to help the State side,” he says. “If we have to contract in from the private sector, we should consider it but there are too many kids waiting too long with very severe problems and that’s not good enough.”
While the amount Mr Donohoe has to give away this year is limited to around a net €300m, if Fianna Fáil has its way, carers and those with disabilities will see an increase in allowances as part of Budget 2018.
Mr Martin doesn’t want to get into “actual figures” ahead of talks with Fine Gael, but says the increase in the carers allowance and a top-up in disabilities payments “would have to be reasonable”.
“What the carers are doing for us is they are helping to keep people at home at a relatively cheaper cost than it would be if they were in a nursing home and I think we need to acknowledge that,” says Mr Martin.
“All of us in our constituencies are seeing it as well, but if you look at the figures, it’s the biggest issue facing the country, resources wise.
“I don’t want to get into actual figures, we are going to be engaging with the budgetary team, but I think there has to be a movement on that front.”
With two sons, one in college and the other in secondary school, Mr Martin is clearly aware of the cost and state of education in this country.
Progress was made on guidance councillors last year, but the opposition party are eager for more on that front.
The creaking third level sector needs to be addressed and there will undoubtedly be calls for more general funding in that area.
“I thinking the cost of post-graduate education is rocketing and I think universities are using fees from post graduates to try and off-set the lack of money elsewhere,” he says. It’s more than €10,000 for some post-grad courses and working people can’t afford that.”
With three months to go before Mr Donohoe stands before the Dáil to announce Budget 2018, Mr Martin is likely to add a few more requests to his budget list.
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