Political Notebook - August is a wicked month

It can be, as the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien once observed, a wicked month. Politicians know that.

It can be, as the Irish writer, Edna O’Brien once observed, a wicked month. Politicians know that.

When the Dail is on holidays, and many of the politicians are taking their break, there is always the possibility of stirrings in the political undergrowth by those still active.

Mostly, they come to nothing. Sometimes they emerge as real and potentially divisive issues. What of the latest spat between Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers on the shape of the October budget? Ultimately, it is likely to come to nothing.

It is the sort of summer skirmish that happens when two political parties, with much at stake, are involved in a Coalition at difficult times.

And so, recently, there was a letter to ‘The Irish Times’ from a number of Fine Gael backbenchers warning against a dilution of spending cuts and tax hikes. This was followed in recent days by a letter from Labour backbenchers warning against “austerity junkies’’ on the other side of the Coalition.

The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, has said that the outline of the budget will not be drafted until mid-September. This allows for the summer skirmishing, as backbenchers keep themselves and their party alive in terms of public visibility. There is no doubt that the talks next month between Fine Gael and Labour Ministers will be difficult. But they will be surmountable.

For the two parties know that if they split on fiscal policy, or any other issue for that matter, they will hang individually in the face of the wrath of voters whose patience is at breaking point.So there will be a budget. And it will be passed.

But there will be a battle about some of the detail and direction. The backdrop to the talks comes in the form of some strong words on the need for fiscal rectitude.

The warnings from our old friends in the Troika – the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – are that the Government must continue with the proposed €3.1 bill in cuts.

Labour has been less than impressed by this, arguing that such a package remains unnecessary because it would beat the Troika’s budget deficit targets by a wide margin.

Fine Gael believes that the Government should meet the deficit target and borrow for a stimulus programme. Its TDs are arguing that while recovery is in sight, it is not yet secure. It will be a challenging time for the Government. There must be a recovery. In the 1980s, the recovery was postponed because of the recklessness of Fianna Fail, in the early part of that decade, and the utter failure of Fine Gael and Labour to introduce the required fiscal measures during their critical few years in power.

Some austerity is required. But people have been fiscally battered for years now and austerity alone will not work. This Government promised a new kind of politics. So the economy has to take precedence over party considerations.

The best advice must be sought. And the country and its people must come first. Politically, there is much at stake for the two parties.

Successive polls have shown that while the Government is inevitably unpopular. As many as one in five voters would opt for an Independent candidate.

That shows the Fianna Fail recovery, from a low base, is quite soft. The party is on a kind of probation by the electorate. Opposition politics, simply for the sake of it, will not work if the party wants to restore its standing with the electorate.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, and their respective parties, must go the full term if they are to have any hope of returning to power. Should they have shown a strong measure of competence by then, and there are visible signs of recovery, voters might just decide to stay with them.

And the anticipated Labour rout might not happen.

During the 2007 election campaign, it looked for a time as if the Mullingar accord was going to work for Fine Gael and Labour and their respective leaders, Mr Kenny and Pat Rabbitte.

Yet, as the campaign progressed, voters decided to back a Fianna Fail-led Government for a third term.

The argument appeared to be: the economy was heading for a slight downturn and Fianna Fail would be best to manage it.

God bless our innocence ! A year or so later, the economic sky fell in, and now we know to our cost about the mistakes made, the lack of direction and the now stomach-turning warning from a FF Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, that those badmouthing the economy should take their own lives.