Stephen Collins in the Irish Times – Right but not entirely right this week.

Government shows signs of lacking nerve for task

STEPHEN COLLINS

INSIDE POLITICS: The recent squabbling between Coalition parties over hard decisions did not inspire confidence

ENDA KENNY’s Government has enjoyed a glorious honeymoon, enhanced by the visits of Queen Elizabeth and US president Barack Obama, but there have been ominous signs over the past two weeks that it may lack the nerve to deal with the fundamental problems facing the country.

The public differences between Fine Gael and Labour on the structural reforms needed to reduce costs in the economy and the necessity for a property tax have been put down by Government sources to procedural and communications problems.

The real worry is that if there is such difficulty over relatively minor aspects of the EU-IMF programme how is the Coalition going to face up to the big decisions in the autumn on next year’s budget which will inevitably provoke widespread public criticism.

What was striking about the reaction to Richard Bruton’s proposed changes in weekend working rates was not that a number of Labour TDs opposed the plan but that their opposition was clearly sanctioned and even encouraged by the party leadership. This was evidenced by the fact that the Labour press office issued a raft of statements from TDs opposing the Minister’s scheme. Normally government TDs who want to disagree with a minister in public have to issue their own statements and incur the wrath of the party whip for doing so.

Labour flexed its muscles again during the past week with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore bluntly stating that there had not been agreement in Cabinet on the household charge announced by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. In both cases Labour was technically correct to point out that final Cabinet approval had not been given but the signal it sent out was one of weaknesses and division. The fact that Kenny appeared to row in behind Gilmore and against his own Ministers, Bruton and Hogan, did not inspire confidence.

The Government has to implement reforms in both cases. They are vital pieces of the jigsaw required to bring the economy back to health and they are also conditions of the EU-IMF programme. The sooner the Coalition makes the public understand the need for the massive reforms needed to save the country from bankruptcy the better.

There is a case for announcing the changes in rates for the low paid at the same time as the long awaited reforms to reduce costs and eliminate restrictive practices among well paid professionals. However, there is an urgency about getting the decisions made to show everybody that the Government is serious about getting the public finances in order and creating the conditions for new job opportunities.

Both Government parties stored up trouble for themselves by the way they pretended during the election campaign that the bailout terms could be renegotiated, bondholders burned and tough decisions avoided. Reality quickly dawned about the bailout and the sooner it does about the rest of the EU-IMF programme the better. As the latest set of exchequer returns demonstrated yet again the big, intractable issue facing the country is the gap between the tax revenue and public spending. There is simply no avoiding the inevitability of tax rises and spending cuts and the sooner the Coalition levels with the public and gets on with it the better.

The Taoiseach and his Ministers did set a good example when they took office by cutting their own salaries and curtailing some of the most absurd perks like State cars. However, the political class still has a bit to go to put its own house in order so that it can have the moral authority to tackle some of the absurdly high salaries across the public service and the semi-State sector.

TDs have taken a reduction in pay since the heady days of the Ahern era but they still get a salary of €92,672, which is generous by international standards. There are also anomalies in the range of expenses and allowances which need to be reformed.

For instance the Standards in Public Office Commission pointed out a week ago that all 19 Independent members of the Dáil receive a “leader’s allowance” of €41,142 on top of their salaries and unlike the political parties they are not obliged to furnish a statement of expenditure to the commission in relation to this money. The allowance continues to be paid to all of the Independents despite the fact that they have formed themselves into a technical group to give themselves the same entitlements as political parties in Dáil debates. This absurd payment was devised after Ahern took office in 1997 and it was designed to keep the small number of Independents in the Dáil at that time in with the Government.

Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe raised the issue in the Dáil on Thursday in a dig at Dún Laoghaire TD Richard Boyd Barrett who had called for cuts in TDs’ pay. To be fair to Boyd Barrett, he also accepted the need for a cut in the allowance and made the point that it would be better to reduce the pay of politicians to save costs rather than cutting the number of TDs. It is a pity the opposite principle is being applied across the public service where the Government is committed to keeping pay up while cutting numbers. Irish public servants have the highest pay rates in the EU outside Scandinavia and it would make far more sense to reduce pay for those earning more than €40,000 a year while retaining as many jobs as possible.

A whole range of unpalatable decisions will have to be made before the end of the year and we will know then whether this Government has the courage and skill to lead the country out of the mire.