Budget Day is the chance for government to regain initiative

THE Fine Gael TD was recalling the uncertainty and fear that existed when the Coalition came to power in February 2011. “Three and a half years ago we didn’t know where the bottom was. We were still tumbling,” recalled the deputy.

Now we have daily “pinch yourself” moments as we hear yet more positive economic news — coming so thick and fast that it’s discomfortingly reminiscent of the good old Celtic Tiger days.

To say we have all travelled a long road — government and citizens, seems barely adequate to describe the distance we’ve covered and the scars we bear. Next Tuesday we are facing into our first post-bust budget. It ain’t gonna be a feel good classic, but all indications and leaks point towards an outcome where we won’t be feeling dazed and delirious at yet more savage cuts.

It’s looking like a budget, according to one Government source, that will “start the process of raising living standards, capturing both low and middle income earners with more to come in the following years”. There has been quite a few leaks in the past few weeks, but we can still expect some “happy” surprises on Tuesday which the Government will have been glad to hang onto and unveil on the day. It is not just a relief to us but also to them not to have to be drip-feeding the horror to people ahead of time.

We don’t seem to fully appreciate it but this is quite an incredible place for us to be in when we consider our recent past. Just three and a half years ago our future seemed doomed and the prospect of recovery pretty slim. But in terms of any gratitude we might feel towards Fine Gael and Labour for guiding us this far, the phrase “eaten bread is soon forgotten” seems particularly apt.

I don’t mean that people have not suffered through the austerity measures introduced, or don’t continue to suffer. However the actions taken at government level over the past few years mean that we are now facing a reasonable chance of recovery and of that being felt, in time, by everyone.

For their part the Government, and particularly the Taoiseach, have been presenting the opposition with golden opportunities to give them a good kicking. It’s a double win in terms of the Opposition being able to legitimately criticise on subjects such as the McNulty/Imma/Seanad saga, and that this then distracts attention from all the positive financial news — the glow from which the Government should now be basking in.

There is no expectation that a Government candidate will win either the Roscommon/South Leit

rim by election or the contest in Dublin South West.

After the hatchet jobs of the last few years it seem odd to think it will be Budget Day that presents the opportunity for the Government to retake the political initiative after a dreadful few weeks of mishandling the McNulty controversy, months in fact if you factor in the various Alan Shatter related controversies that went on before the summer.

One senior party member says that, post budget, the problem for the Taoiseach is that his party will move from Government mode to campaigning for the general election mode and those people who used to advise him on these matters such as Phil Hogan and Frank Flannery are no longer around.

While the official in Fine Gael headquarters who took the initiative in the McNulty affair has not been named it must be presumed that this is yet another person usually involved in the election side of things for the party who is now somewhat handicapped in that task.

The most interesting aspect of the budget from the prospect not only of financial allocation given to each Department, but also personality, is the health sector. Health Minister Leo Varadkar and the Taoiseach have been locking horns and it is to be hoped that the needs of the health service will not be sacrificed by a rush of testosterone from either side.

Varadkar now holds an exceptionally powerful seat in the Cabinet having maneuvered himself into that position. He clearly feels confident enough to say almost whatever he wants, and then has it seen by the public as separate from what people consider to be the normal “self serving” white noise they hear from politicians.

His colleagues, and any others who fancy themselves as potential future Fine Gael leaders, have begun to realise Enda Kenny will not be around for ever. However, barring utter disaster, the Taoiseach will be the man who leads them into the next general election.

Leo Varadkar has very cleverly positioned himself as the front runner for that job but he needs to be careful not to front load his campaign. There is a fine line between him putting himself about and showing his leadership qualities, and ending up in spats with the boss while the health services remains hopelessly unreformed. For his part Enda Kenny must refrain from taking too much of the bait from the young turk and giving him even more validation by publicly slapping him down.

Something similar goes for those in the party who are cheesed off with him because they have been either demoted or left unpromoted. Former junior minister Fergus O’Dowd had much validity in what he had to say about Irish Water and how it is operating, but there is no doubt but that there was extra needle in his comments following his demotion during the summer. He believed he should have been a senior minister when the government first entered office, let alone having to suffer the ignominy of being thrown off the junior benches. The Taoiseach needs to stop handing these malcontents golden opportunities to criticise him, and get back to being a leader.

He probably believes there is no winning with the media at the moment and there is an element of truth to that. But again here the media is hardly expected to look gift horses in the mouth, and might even welcome a break from the Enda-bashing stories that have become so commonplace.

Right now, or anytime soon, a general election would not be a good thing for this country. Things are beginning to stabilise, and regardless of your party affiliation it has to be fairly clear that political uncertainty would set the project back. There is a general election on the political horizon, to be held at least within the next year and a half, if not sooner, and that is having enough of an effect on our circumstances.

So Budget Day is the time for the Taoiseach to take back control of the reins. In the short term, Tuesday presents him with the opportunity to get his Coalition back on track. His promise that he would bring us a new politics rings rather hollow now, particularly following the McNulty issue. But he does still have a chance for a different type of redemption if he were to be the leader who lead us away from our horrible habit of “boom to bust” economics.

Tuesday presents the Taoiseach with the opportunity to get his Coalition back on track


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