Honesty needed as Fine Gael faces moment of truth

INSIDE POLITICS: If it does nothing else, the Green Party inspired meeting of party leaders may encourage realism, writes STEPHEN COLLINS
THE GREEN Party initiative on consensus is unlikely to succeed in its ultimate objective but it has had a significant impact on the political landscape and may even help in the more important task of focusing debate on the reality of the choices facing the country in the months ahead.

John Gormley’s unilateral call over a week ago for a political consensus on the four-year budget plan clearly irritated Brian Cowen. The Taoiseach’s initial response was negative in tone, even though he left the door open to avoid publicly insulting his Coalition partner.
By the middle of this week the Taoiseach had got over his annoyance at Gormley’s failure to follow proper procedure and had come around to accepting the value of the consensus approach as a good political manoeuvre, if nothing else.
The letter to Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore inviting them to talk and formally offering “constructive engagement” has left the two main Opposition parties with some serious thinking to do. There has already been a marked contrast in the way Kenny and Gilmore have responded.
Repeating his call for an immediate election Gilmore agreed to the meeting of party leaders but made his scepticism quite clear by dismissing it as an attempt to develop “a phoney consensus”.
By contrast Kenny welcomed the Taoiseach’s invitation without any carping. He went on to tell an Irish American audience in New York on Thursday night that he had been in touch with Cowen promising to use any influence he had in the European Peoples’ Party to reaffirm that Ireland would tackle it economic problems and fulfil its obligations as a member of the euro currency area.
Kenny, who has sometimes struggled to do so, hit the right note. The real challenge for him now is to follow that up by having the courage to stand over a realistic response to the crisis in the public finances and resist the urge to go for short-term gain by rejecting whatever the Government decides to do.
Fine Gael has lost its way over the past year and that is not just down to Kenny’s leadership or the attempt to remove him. During the first half of the current Dáil’s lifetime the party took courageous stands on a range of issues. Kenny called it right on public service pay in 2008 and took a lot of grief from Fianna Fáil before the Government belatedly recognised that the October 2008 pay deal was completely unaffordable, given the state of the public finances.
Leo Varadkar with his proposed cull of quangos, Simon Coveney in his New Era document on jobs and the semi-State sector and Brian Hayes with his idea of loans rather than free fees for third-level education represented honest approaches to the big challenges facing the country. Fine Gael also had the courage to support the bank guarantee which, despite the Anglo shambles, was in principle the right thing to do as the governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, has repeatedly said.
Over the past year, however, as the 30th Dáil began to enter the later stages of its life, Fine Gael appeared to lose its nerve as it watched Labour’s astonishing rise in the polls on the back of its vote against the bank guarantee and a traditional line in opposition populism.
The moment of truth for Fine Gael is now very close and it will define itself once and for all by the way it responds when the truly appalling scale of the budgetary crisis becomes clear over the next two months. To prove itself capable of leading the next government the party will have to be honest with the electorate and come up with a realistic four-year plan of its own that doesn’t shirk unpalatable truths.
Of course, the temptation will be to take the line of least resistance and simply attack a badly wounded and unpopular Government while avoiding hard choices on the real issues at stake. Not only would that be the wrong thing to do in the national interest it wouldn’t be in Fine Gael’s interest either. It can never do indignation as well as Labour and will only come off second best if it tries.
Labour has had a great run but the consensus debate of the past week has put the focus on what it is offering as an alternative and the sight has not been encouraging. In an interview in the Evening Herald Gilmore ruled out any tax increases for middle or lower income earners, any cuts in welfare payments, pensions or child benefit and to cap it all he also ruled out a property tax.
The only policies he offered were a new third rate of tax on those earning over €100,000 and the elimination of property-based tax incentives. Both policies may make eminent sense but their implementation would come nowhere near raising the €3 billion or so required to accompany the cut of €1 billion in capital spending on which all the parties appear to agree. Labour clearly fears being outflanked by Sinn Féin which has rejected the EU target in the first place and is sure to oppose every budget cut. Irish political history shows that playing to the gallery and giving the impression that hard choices can be avoided very often pays off. In the last two election campaigns for instance voters rewarded Fianna Fáil for its irresponsibility.
However, the sheer scale of the crisis and the fact that our EU partners won’t let us avoid it for fear we could bring the euro down with us may have changed the nature of political debate for good.
Labour has acted responsibly by accepting the EU target of getting the deficit down to 3 per cent of GDP by 2014 but from now on the party and its leader will be under pressure to come up with more realistic answers about how that target can be achieved.
Honohan spoke during the week of the need for a consensus in society, and not just in the political system, on the broad approach to the crisis in the public finances.
If it does nothing else the meeting of the party leaders may encourage realism all round.