FERGUS FINLAY: BUDGET 2016: We have two big decisions to make before the spring election

There is a huge prize at the far side of this election. If current economic trends continue Ireland will see a balanced budget again by 2017, writes Fergus Finlay

After that weekend, it seems almost crass to talk about politics. Despite the tension and then exhilaration at what happened in Cardiff, nothing could quite erase the thought of little children and their parents dying in a terrible fire in a quiet residential area. Children are dead and an entire community is bereaved.

You could see in the faces of neighbours how they felt about the disaster, and you could tell from the dozens of floral tributes that this was a tragedy that cut deep into the neighbourhood. And a wider community is bereaved too, the community of travellers. Both the neighbourhood and that wider community were united in grief throughout yesterday.

The nation will mourn too, and flags will fly at half-mast during the funerals — the first time in Ireland that flags have flown at half-mast for members of the travelling community. It’s fitting, and it will be fitting if in due time we set about ensuring that the housing conditions of that community are properly addressed.

BUDGET 2016: We have two big decisions to make before the spring election

The flags will stay at half-mast during the funeral of Garda Tony Golden, shot dead while apparently trying to rescue a women from an incident of domestic violence. It was the kind of unthinkable crime that should never happen, and it raises serious questions, not the least of which arises from the fact that a man on bail while charged with terrorist activities was able to arm himself with a handgun.

In the immediate aftermath, I find myself thinking about Garda Golden’s children too. Proud of their dad, proud of his work, they couldn’t have known — and should never have to know — that he wouldn’t come home on Sunday night. Loss like that takes years of healing.

In the midst of all that, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I spent Sunday afternoon on the edge of my seat (with thousands of others, of course) willing the Irish team to surmount what began to seem like impossible odds, after Johnny Sexton limped off and then Paul O’Connell was carried off.

I have no sporting hero greater than Paul O’Connell. I don’t know him well, but he has helped to support our work in Barnardos, and he has always been a complete gentleman in any dealings we’ve had. He inspires people around him like no-one else I know, and I suspect that his injury, as bad as it was for him, may well have been the catalyst that lifted his team to almost unimaginable heights of excellence in an unforgettable second half.

BUDGET 2016: We have two big decisions to make before the spring election

In the middle of all of that, to have to listen to endless media twaddle about whether or not there will be an election in November was a right pain. It was started by, of all people, Phil Hogan, who is believed by some to live in the inner ear of the Taoiseach, and then it was taken up by Ivan Yates, who was happily placing bets on his radio programme that there would be an election in November “unless the Taoiseach bottled it”. Talk about an each-way bet.

I had been tempted to write here last week about the nonsense it all was. I’m half sorry I didn’t now, because who wants to sound wise after the event.

But here’s the thing. The exact same media commentators who jumped on the November election bandwagon would have instantly accused Enda Kenny, if he had listened to them, of all sorts of things. He’d have been told he’d done an about turn on all his previous commitments. He’d have been excoriated for dropping the bank enquiry into complete irrelevance. They’d have pointed to all the unfinished legislative business, and accused him of complete irresponsibility if the Finance Bill and Social Welfare Bill looked rushed and messy (as they would have).

In other words, the media always win, don’t they? When Enda Kenny repeats on Sunday night’s television what he had said all along, there’s room for editorials criticising him for flip-flopping and for being puerile.

Now, perhaps he was being a bit mischievous with the media over the last week or so. But I can’t find anywhere the slightest indication, apart from the usual plethora of unnamed and anonymous sources, that the Taoiseach ever had the slightest intention of departing from his often-expressed preference for a spring election. According to one newspaper yesterday, there is fury among the same unnamed and anonymous sources that the Taoiseach has somehow or other done the dirty on them.

BUDGET 2016: We have two big decisions to make before the spring election

One of the golden rules of politics is that when you’re gone you’re gone. Anyone who seriously believes that Ivan Yates or Phil Hogan is still pulling Fine Gael strings is kidding themselves. They (like a few more of us!) are yesterday’s men. They’re not in the arena now, and being in the arena is the only thing that matters.

The issue for Enda Kenny is not now, and never has been, when he should call an election. The issue is how he forms a coherent government after the election. If that’s the question, and it is, there is only one strategic answer. The Government has to go to the people as a government of two parties, united in respect for each other’s differences and determined to present a track record of solid achievement and a coherent vision for the future.

That wouldn’t be easy at the best of times. I’ve written here before that this government will be remembered in history as a highly effective government. The circumstances in which it took office seem to be largely forgotten in the ever-more frenetic news cycle, and there is no doubt that the government’s decisions have made it unpopular. Among others, I’ve been a critic of some of the choices they’ve made, but I still believe there is no other option available to us if we are to cement the economic recovery.

There is a huge prize at the far side of this election. If current economic trends continue — and of course that’s a big if — Ireland will see a balanced budget again by 2017. There will, at last, be resources available to really begin to fix the things that need fixing. A proper, planned return to public housing, a real investment in child care and child protection, a proper approach to education — all these things are real live possibilities for the next government. Today’s Budget needs to make a start on all of those things — and demonstrate what’s possible in the future.

Between now and the spring election, we all have two decisions to make. First, who do we trust with a balanced budget. Will it be the people who created the conditions, or will it be some entirely unprecedented mix of parties and individuals — none of whom, right now, can agree even to talk to each other?

The second, and maybe bigger decision, was posed in a wise editorial in this newspaper yesterday. “Maybe,” it said, “we should … consider what we might really like: an extra few bob in our pockets or hospital patients on trolleys. Maybe we should use the opportunity to work out what is possible and what is delusional.” In other words, what kind of country we want. Maybe we should.

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