Child benefit U-turn raises questions over future stability
IF even half the contents of the vaunted programme for government unveiled by Enda Kenny last week actually come to pass, the people of Ireland will soon be living in a utopia.
Fine Gael and their new Independent partners expect voters to believe that in a few short years Ireland will have almost full employment and we’ll see an end to homelessness.
We are also promised a fully functioning health service, an end to crime and a glorious return to idyllic rural Irish life.
Can we expect much of this to actually come to pass? Probably not if events in Leinster House last week were anything to go by.
The Programme for Partnership Government sets out an ambition for a new type of politics and a new way of doing business in the Oireachtas. Sadly, it seems, the old ways of doing business are still, very much, to the fore.
In a development that will have taken even the most cynical observers of Irish politics by surprise, it took less than 12 hours for the first row to erupt over the programme for government. The first government climb down was even quicker. This dispute didn’t centre on one of the programme’s big ticket items – like water charges or the highly ambitious aim to get some sort of a handle on the homelessness crisis within 100 days – rather it focussed on the seemingly innocuous proposal to link child benefit payments to school attendance.
This idea – one which many education experts said was a positive move that would help children avail of a good schooling and escape the poverty trap – was suggested many times in recent years by Independent TD and newly installed Minister for Communications D enis Naughten.
One presumes that it was included in the programme for government directly at his urging. The assumption that it wasn’t a Fine Gael policy is given weight by just how quickly Enda Kenny’s party moved to abandon it.
Within hours of the programme’s publication, Fianna Fail, seen by many voters as Fine Gael’s coalition partners in all but name, rushed to oppose it. Willie O’D ea warned Fianna Fáil would vote down the proposal and various children’s charities called for the government to give a clear undertaking that child benefits would never be linked to school attendance. Fine Gael immediately caved in. Paschal D onohoe – who as Public Expenditure Minister is responsible for defending the public coffers from abuse – was the first to bolt for the door, followed soon after by several other senior Fine Gael ministers.
It is a truly farcical situation that the programme for government, one expressly aimed at fostering the, so called, ‘New Politics’, can’t survive 12 hours without a major U-turn.
If a relatively minor proposal – one designed to save money, combat fraud and improve children’s lives all at less cost to the taxpayer – can’t last half a day, what hope is there that real progress can be made on health, housing, crime, jobs and water.
Minister Naughten must also be wondering how many more of the pledges he negotiated will be abandoned by the Taoiseach and his party comrades at the first sign of political trouble.
A RED C poll on Friday said almost half of voters think the government will collapse in less than a year. Given last week’s shambolic it’s difficult to argue with them and that’s hardly a recipe for a stable government.