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Irish Independent - - NEWS - Ciarán Con­lon

Ciarán Con­lon: A game of po­lit­i­cal poker with €8bn on the ta­ble

T HE next 10 weeks could de­cide how the coun­try is gov­erned for the next 10 years. That is the type of cal­cu­la­tion that will be fo­cus­ing minds in the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties as we get ready for the re­sump­tion of the Dáil on Septem­ber 20. Why is the chal­lenge so im­me­di­ate and the prize so po­ten­tially en­dur­ing? Well, it’s to do with the bud­get – not the 2018 ver­sion, im­por­tant though that will be, but the three bud­gets that come af­ter that and which are cen­tral to this cal­cu­la­tion.

While the amount of avail­able funds in the up­com­ing bud­get will be of the or­der of €500m or so, the three sub­se­quent bud­gets are pro­jected to have sev­eral mul­ti­ples of that avail­able. In fact, each of the three bud­gets up to 2021 should have ap­prox­i­mately €2.7bn avail­able for new pro­grammes or tax re­duc­tions. That means there is ef­fec­tively an €8.1bn pot that the po­lit­i­cal par­ties will be fight­ing to have con­trol of so that they can im­ple­ment their poli­cies and de­liver for their voter blocks.

Given the pol­i­tics of the last 10 years, that is quite a prospect to con­sider and a po­lit­i­cal plat­form worth fight­ing for. Who­ever is in a po­si­tion to di­rect these types of re­sources to their pol­icy agenda will have an in­cred­i­bly strength­ened hand come the elec­tion fol­low­ing the one to re­place this cur­rent Oireach­tas. Whether it is a Fine Gael-led ad­min­is­tra­tion or a Fianna Fáil-led one – re­al­is­ti­cally they are the op­tions – will de­pend on whether the polls for both par­ties shift from their cur­rent broad par­ity.

If Fine Gael re­mains level or gains a slight edge, it is harder to see the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion be­ing col­lapsed by Fianna Fáil. While the cur­rent deal be­tween the mi­nor­ity Gov­ern­ment and Fianna Fáil is framed to ac­com­mo­date three bud­gets, if Micheál Martin and his team can put sev­eral points be­tween him­self and Leo Varad­kar’s Fine Gael, there will be a lot of pres­sure to trig­ger an elec­tion in spring be­fore we get to the third bud­get in Oc­to­ber 2018.

It’s a very risky strat­egy but, off the back of a dif­fi­cult win­ter or some new cri­sis, Fianna Fáil could claim that it had given the mi­nor­ity Gov­ern­ment deal a de­cent run but that things just weren’t work­ing out and it was time for a strong new man­date for a new gov­ern­ment.

But that brings us back again to the next 10 weeks, and why it is so im­por­tant. Those 10 weeks will play a huge part in de­cid­ing if ei­ther group can get the poll num­bers to move in their favour. Those num­bers have been pretty con­sis­tent since Fine Gael be­gan its lead­er­ship change. The prospect of a gen­er­a­tional shift in lead­er­ship saw Fine Gael’s num­bers jump in April to 29 points. An­other poll in May con­firmed the pos­i­tive move­ment with a 30pc score and then one more in July, af­ter Fine Gael had a new leader in place, se­cured an­other 30pc re­sult. Other than a seem­ingly very low 21pc score in the April poll, Fianna Fáil has sta­tis­ti­cally matched Fine Gael in the other polls, with 27pc and 29pc.

While these num­bers are en­cour­ag­ing for both par­ties, as it shows them up about 5pc on their last elec­tion per­for­mances, it doesn’t make a com­pelling case for ei­ther to risk ask­ing the elec­torate for a new man­date. This is ob­vi­ously of more in­ter­est to Fianna Fáil, as the status quo cur­rently suits Fine Gael even if it is far from ideal from a gov­er­nance point of view.

Three ma­jor set-pieces in the next 10 weeks will sig­nal if ei­ther party can har­ness that no­to­ri­ously elu­sive po­lit­i­cal com­mod­ity, mo­men­tum: the bud­get on Oc­to­ber 10, a Fianna Fáil árd fheis shortly af­ter, on Oc­to­ber 13 and 14; and then a new cap­i­tal plan some­time in Novem­ber. These are the types of events that one looks to as a party to build that pre­cious mo­men­tum and those back-room teams in all par­ties, not just Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will be work­ing very hard to do just that. But it is no easy task.

The bud­get is a dou­ble-edged sword, as you can fix some things but never all. The €500m avail­able for ex­tra spend­ing or tax mea­sures will not go as far as ev­ery­one will want and the 2:1 split agreed be­tween the par­ties in favour of spend­ing over tax will mean maybe €200m or so for tax cuts. When you con­sider that a 1pc cut off the 20pc rate costs €606m, off the 40pc rate €330m, or a €1,000 in­crease in the

Three set pieces in the next 10 weeks will sig­nal if ei­ther party can har­ness that elu­sive com­mod­ity, mo­men­tum

stan­dard rate band – which Fi­nance Min­is­ter Paschal Dono­hoe has flagged an in­ter­est in – costs €202m, you can see how lit­tle wrig­gle room there is. A cap­i­tal plan can de­scribe a fu­ture vi­sion for the coun­try but in the shorter term the chal­lenge is to get projects off the draw­ing board and out on to the ground. An árd fheis is a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity to rally the troops and build a nar­ra­tive that you think will carry you to elec­toral suc­cess. But again, if you pitch it wrong or don’t have new so­lu­tions and rely too heav­ily on old crit­i­cisms then the pub­lic will pick up on that quickly.

So, a high-stakes game of po­lit­i­cal poker is be­ing played out around Kil­dare Street right now, with a pot of €8bn sit­ting in the mid­dle of the ta­ble for the one who plays their cards best. While the €8bn is the ob­vi­ous prize, it is ac­tu­ally only a tool to try to fix the things that need to be fixed in our so­ci­ety and give a well-earned break to all those who have worked so hard to keep that so­ci­ety afloat through 10 cri­sis years.

The right mix of poli­cies helped cre­ate the pos­si­bil­ity to have such a pot ready to be in­vested over the com­ing years but the wrong ones could eas­ily see it di­min­ished. There are well doc­u­mented ex­ter­nal threats we know about and some less well ap­pre­ci­ated in­ter­nal ones too that could close this win­dow of op­por­tu­nity. That’s why it’s time to take a re­ally close look at what ev­ery­one is say­ing and propos­ing to do over those 10 weeks be­cause the stakes re­ally couldn’t be higher.

Re­mem­ber, it’s our money on the ta­ble.

Fine Gael’s Leo Varad­kar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin have much to play for over the next 10 weeks

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