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Implausibly happy Christmas for Fianna Fáil


The Government can now look forward to enjoying the Christmas break with far more confidence than looked possible at the start of the present Dáil session. It has pushed through the toughest budget in living memory with the strong support of some otherwise doubtful backbenchers, along with the votes of a number of Independent TDs, who were kept on side with a few sweeteners for their constituencies.
Some months ago in this column, I gave the coalition a 50/50 chance of survival to the new year. But things were looking really bleak for them then.
Following a disastrous showing at European, local and by-election level last June, both partners in Government appeared to be on a collision course with the Greens making shapes that looked like a desire to get out of government altogether. But in the autumn they drew up a new programme for government that bought them extra time.
Then the legislation setting up NAMA also looked as if it might cause a split between the two parties but they survived that test too. And then the greatest threat of all – the Budget – had far more support in the Dáil than any government could hope for.
But, of course, Independents and backbenchers alike know that any defeat for a budgetary measure would lead to an early general election.
And both Fianna Fáil and the Greens know that they are going to be hammered whenever they go to the country. The Greens know that they may very well be completely wiped out while Fianna Fáil stand to lose at least half the seats they have in the present Dáil. So an election had to be avoided at any cost.
However, it came as a surprise to many that the Government had the support of all the Fianna Fáil backbenchers in the various Dáil votes on the Budget. Some of the Government’s strongest critics are amongst its own backbench TDs. But some of those backbench critics let it be known fairly quickly that they were not going to support any compromise to the trade unions on the issue of pay cuts for public servants. Rather than opposing draconian measures in the Budget, they insisted that the Government would have to take a hard line and carry out the necessary cuts for the sake of the economy.
And the Budget was certainly very tough. But it was tougher on some more than on others. So in that sense, it was not fair to some of the most vulnerable in our society.
The Budget also showed a streak of cowardice in the Government, something I would never have accused Brian Cowen of in the past.
The failure of the Government to reduce old-age pensions in line with reductions in other social welfare payments showed that they were far more concerned with their own survival than they were about fairness.
The most vulnerable in society, particularly those with severe physical and mental health problems have been hit, while relatively well-off pensioners have been protected.
Why? Because the Government is afraid of pensioners. They never realised the extent of the power of pensioners until they removed the automatic right to a medical card for those over 70 in last year’s Budget. So they were not going to take on the elderly again in a hurry.
But they had no fear of those on the dole or on disability allowances, people who are not organised in any way or who have no great fight left in them. That was certainly not fair. The Government also knows that a lot of people on welfare do not vote at all, whereas a high proportion of pensioners make full use of the ballot box.
That’s politics for you. Governments are as likely to support trouble in the ranks as turkeys are likely to vote for Christmas. And there certainly would have been a lot of trouble, both inside and outside the ranks, if the Government had tried to reduce old-age pensions in line with the other reductions in social welfare payments.
It was also unfair to reduce the wages of public servants earning less than €30,000 a year.
There are those who might argue that the reductions are small and are more or less in line with the reductions in the cost of living. But those on the receiving end of those cuts would certainly not agree. They can find very few reductions in the price of food in their local supermarket. And when one is on the bread line every cent counts.
However, that is something that ministers who have the luxury of chauffeur-driven Mercedes cars at their disposal could never understand. No matter what political party they are members of.
Ministers do not need a garda to drive them here, there and everywhere. They do not need a bodyguard or a state car. They could drive their own car as most of us do and be paid expenses for every official trip they take.
There are still too many wastages of public money in this country. We can still save a lot of money by getting rid of a lot of useless customs and institutions that we insist on holding onto here.
Better do that than target the most vulnerable in a budget.

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