Political columnist with The Clare Echo, Eoin Neylon examines this week’s landmark developments between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
It took over two months from the General Election but after much shadow boxing, followed by weeks of backroom discussions, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael produced a ‘Framework Document’ on which any possible Program for Government would be formed.
To explain what this document effectively is, it’s a shopping list of ideas, not all of which will be enacted within a five-year period. It’s not costed either, which, in the fact of a global pandemic and the associated economic contraction, may prove a large roadblock to some of the more ambitious projects that are name checked, for example the high-speed rail line between Dublin and Belfast. Of major interest, however, was the commitment that taxes would not be raised, not welfare cut.
There is also a commitment not to hike student fees, nor shirk the State’s environmental responsibilities in the form of such things like a just transition fund for badly affected communities. The latter could yet prove beneficial to West Clare as the Moneypoint power station reached the end of its life span as a coal burning power plant. The stated goal to become a European leader in offshore wind energy production could also be of direct benefit to the county.
The entire document is structured as a ‘come and chat’ greeting card to the Green Party, Labour Party and Social Democrats. It’s aspirational but, with the current financial situation, cannot possibly be implemented in its entirety. Nevertheless, commitments to end to dependence on fossil fuels, to reduce the country’s carbon footprint, the specific target to plant 440 million trees over the next 20 years, a State-wide response to the biodiversity crisis and affirmation of the increase in carbon taxes are all direct calls to the Greens and their election manifesto.
To lure the Labour Party, commitments on welfare, higher education funding, employment conditions, and a commitment to introduce a living wage. On top of all these, the commitment to a Universal Healthcare System is a clear calling to the Social Democrats given co-leader Róisín Shorthall’s leading role in the development of the Sláintecare proposal.
Until such a time as at least one of the above parties comes on board, the blanks in the framework document won’t be filled in. The lack of detail is undoubtedly deliberate, to allow for smaller parties to claim victories in getting specific commitments. Ultimately, clear commitments and targets for social and affordable housing, a new renters charter, commitments to a social charter that would seek to change the way Government approaches policy are amongst the key measures that the parties are aiming to fulfil the change agenda mandate that people delivered in February. The social charter is possibly the most interesting in that it seeks to change the entire Government approach to policy, away from base numbers and overall economic progression, towards quality of life measures as used in other progressive regimes worldwide.
The Green Party have already come out and demanded that any coalition must commit to a seven per cent annual reduction in emissions over the lifetime of the next Government. Labour are examining the framework in detail. The Social Democrats are thus far playing their cards close to their chest. One other group that need to be considered though are party members of the “traditional big two”.
Fine Gael members can be outvoted by their Parliamentary Party when it comes to a vote on Government formation. Fianna Fáil on the other hand are mandated to consult all members with equal vote at a special Ard Fheis on any Program for Government. Seeing as talks with small parties and details for a Program for Government will likely take several weeks more, it may well be possible to hold such a gathering yet. However, if not, for the party to legitimately enter a coalition, especially one with such ground-breaking historical significance, simply must consult its members adequately. If not in person voting, then postal ballot voting on the Program for Government must be arranged by Fianna Fáil head office.
The need to consult the members can be avoided under FF rules if the party’s National Executive vote by two thirds majority to do so. Nevertheless, if they were to vote to deprive the members, the very same people that elect them to their position, they’d effectively be signing their own death warrant.
If I’m to borrow a famous phrase from Irish political history. There would be a mass change to the rule making body within the party at the next Ard Fheis as disaffected members replace the Ard Chomhairle en masse. Clare TD Cathal Crowe set about gauging the views of FF members in Clare by organising an online conference videocall the same day as the document was released. This is a good example of how parties can move to embrace technology to consult their members before a final decision is made.
Either which way, the commitment to avoid austerity is the most welcome one in the document. Instead, the parties, learning from mistakes of the past, are instead looking to go for a more Keynesian economic program of targeted investment is instead of cuts will be employed to kick start the economy. This is possible in this instance as borrow cost for the state remain at historically low rates. In some cases, the borrowing rates for Irish nine- and ten-year bonds have been negative. This means that if the state borrows money now, it would pay back less money when the bonds mature.
By contrast, then the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and the state could no longer pay its bills, the Government was forced into drastic cuts. The borrowing costs on the same bonds had ballooned to an unsustainable 14.5 per cent yield by 2011 at the height of that crisis, meaning the state could not borrow money on international markets. At the end of the day, we have an historic opportunity to transform the state. Here’s hoping it’s not an opportunity lost.