HAVING only sat for a mere five weeks since the new government was formed, Dáil Éireann is currently on a six-week break, somewhat less than the normal 10-week summer recess, which is excessive and needs to be pared back in future. There is a lot of lost time to be made up for after all the dithering that took place in trying to form a workable coalition government between the announcement of the general election results the second weekend of February and the last weekend of June.
The Covid-19 pandemic certainly changed the dynamic when it hit Ireland within weeks of the election. When leadership needed to be shown, it was provided by acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his caretaker government, but that was always going to be a temporary little arrangement, albeit one that enhanced the reputation of a leader who initially looked to be heading for the opposition benches after a poor general election showing by Fine Gael.
That the new government comprises an unprecedented coalition of century-long arch-rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, along with the Green Party as the tail that is wagging the dog, does not matter a whit to the people of Ireland. They want action to get the economy back on track and, when the Dáil resumes on September 15th, it will have a lot to consider ahead of Budget 2021 as there will be so many demands made by sectors that have suffered due to the ongoing pandemic.
Due to the fact that the Covid-19 virus is still out there in the community, the government will be flying blind regarding how much more damage it is going to cause to our people first, and then the economy, in the immediate to medium-term future. The pandemic, along with the uncertainty about whether or not there will be a satisfactory trade deal – preferably with no tariffs on our exports – between the European Union and the United Kingdom before the end of the year will not make budgeting easy for Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and his sidekick, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath.
The provision made by Minister Donohue in Budget 2020 for a no-deal Brexit scenario was quickly gobbled up by the pandemic costs and there has been a slew of borrowing to help pay for all the extra measures that have had to be put in place as a result of Covid-19. Borrowing is cheap at the moment, but they also have to factor in the massive losses in tax and other revenue to the Exchequer during the lockdown as well as the cost of paying social welfare to the record number of people who have lost their jobs because of it.
The first tranche of Micheál Martin’s long-sought tenure as Taoiseach was a nightmare, to say the least, and it went from bad to worse with dissent within his own Fianna Fáil party over ministerial appointments followed by his having to sack Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen for failing to disclose all the circumstances surrounding his three-month driving ban in 2016 for being over the alcohol limit permissible while driving on a provisional licence. Mr Martin, who previously had a reputation for dithering over hard decisions, was ruthless in Cowen’s case and upset a lot of people within his own party, which – no doubt – will come back to haunt him in due course.
In the meantime, the new Taoiseach needs to show similar decisiveness in getting the country back on track, as this is where his political legacy will be forged. He needs to establish more gravitas, especially on the home front; indeed, so far, he is not unlike former Taoiseach Enda Kenny who was more comfortable on the international stage than here in Ireland.
Mr Martin looked at ease on recent visits to Northern Ireland to meet the Assembly’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister and in Brussels for the leaders’ meetings to carve-up the EU’s €750bn recovery fund between member-states. As he said, the EU’s recovery is important for Ireland as a country whose economy depends heavily on having markets for its exports.
The fundamentals of our own economy need to be sorted out in a way that is socially just and, while the pandemic has not gone away, neither have the crises in housing and healthcare that were forced to take a back seat in recent months. These and other issues such as education, the pensions ‘time bomb’ and youth unemployment, to name but a few, will all have to be dealt with.
Social Justice Ireland, an independent social justice think tank, says that the next few budgets should focus primarily on employment, infrastructure and services – not on reducing the deficit – in a well set-out policy briefing on budget choices. It urges the new government to support incomes, restore domestic demand and sustain strategic firms and institutions.
No doubt, the government will have a lot more pre-budget submissions to consider from various vested interests, who will be presenting their own wish lists. Regardless, Budget 2021 needs to be just and equitable, and needs to be robustly debated in advance in the Dáil when it resumes next month.