Micheál Martin: Budget must vindicate Fianna Fáil trust

We enabled a Fine Gael minority government with the proviso that it create a more equal society, and that is what we expect when the books are balanced, says Micheál Martin

WHEN the results of the 2016 general election came in, Irish politics was in a new place.

The Dáil arithmetic dictated that the political parties either did things differently or there would be another election in short order.

Different parties approached the challenge in different ways. The smaller parties and groupings removed themselves from the responsibility of government-formation.

Fianna Fáil wanted to act responsibly and we tried to form a minority-led government, but we did not get the support of independents and smaller parties. We then negotiated the confidence-and-supply arrangement to facilitate a Fine Gael-led minority government.

That decision, to be responsible and facilitate a government, has been dramatically vindicated since. With the British vote to leave the European Union, and the EU Commission’s attempt to undermine Ireland’s tax autonomy through the Apple decision, it is clear to every reasonable person that Ireland needs a government.

The upcoming budget, which will dominate the political agenda in the coming weeks and months, will be the first big test of the Government’s commitment to honouring the confidence-and-supply agreement.

Fianna Fáil have secured significant concessions, with the increase in rent allowance, the acceptance of a 2:1 ratio for spending on public-service investment versus tax cuts, a significant increase in the number of gardaí, and the return of the National Treatment Purchase Fund, to name just a few. That fund, if properly implemented, has the potential to take thousands of hospital patients off waiting lists.

In the budget, we want a return to basic, progressive values. We are in opposition, not in government, so we will not have the scope to determine every detail of budgetary policy, but there cannot be a return to the practice of the last five years, when those who could least afford it were asked to bear the biggest burden.

Through our engagement with the budgetary oversight committee and through individual engagement with ministers, we will be emphasising the fairness agenda and working to restore basic decency to the budget.

Already, we can see our influence having an effect. Forcing a shift in emphasis and language is an achievement, but we must now ensure that it is followed through in policy and practice.

We need a major gear change in the Government’s approach to education. We need to invest in the productive sector of our economy. Education must be prioritised in the budget. It has been neglected in recent years. For example, we need to ensure that ex-quota guidance counsellor services are restored. The elimination of that service was a scandal.

Similarly, there is an acute funding crisis in our third-level sector, which is threatening its viability and undermining rankings. The budget has to prioritise third-level funding. In addition, we want to see support for postgraduate students back on the agenda, and an improvement in pupil-teacher ratios.

This budget simply has to reduce the cost of living for families and restore some quality of life for our older population. Costs of childcare have to be tackled. In the coming weeks, we are confident that we can make good progress in these regards.

We have been arguing for radical action to deal with the housing emergency, and the crisis within our health services, for the last five years. We are told by the Government that they hear us and are committed to change. We will see, in the budget, whether this commitment is real and whether it is to be properly resourced.

Not everything can be done at once, but progress needs to be made quickly on these fronts.

The current Dáil arithmetic certainly presents many challenges, but it also presents a major opportunity. It means that the days of consequence-free opposition are over.

The opportunity is now there to build consensus between any parties and groupings, on any one issue, if your analysis and your arguments are sound.

By contrast, those who choose to stay on the sidelines, and prefer slogans over real engagement, will be found out.

For our part, Fianna Fáil stand ready to make the very most of the mandate we have been given. Our parliamentary party will meet today and tomorrow, in Carlow, where we will discuss how best we use it to push forward our vision and plan for an Ireland for all.

Micheál Martin is leader of Fianna Fail

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