Philip Ryan: 'Budget debate frames key battlegrounds for the coming election'

The battlegrounds for next year’s general election were set out in the Dáil chamber yesterday during the debate on Budget 2020. They will be health, housing and the management of the economy in the face of Brexit.

First, no matter what happens between now and the election in May, Brexit looms large. Even if a deal is struck between the UK and EU, a period of uncertainty follows.

And if a deal is struck it will only be on the UK’s exit and years of trade negotiations will follow. Brexit, I’m afraid, is going nowhere soon.

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With this in mind, Fianna Fáil gave Fine Gael a free pass to craft a Brexit Budget without the threat of general election hanging over its head.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe dutifully unveiled a €1.2bn Brexit bailout package which will support various industries and the unemployed should the UK leave the EU without a deal.

No one knows how much money will be needed to save the country from a no-deal Brexit or if the schemes devised by Mr Donohoe will work. But it does allow him revive his reputation as a prudent Finance Minister who puts country before party.

Mr Donohoe and Fine Gael have some work to do in this area after a year of fire fighting controversies surrounding budget overruns in the National Children’s Hospital and the National Broadband Plan.

Politically, there’s not much Fianna Fáil can do about Brexit apart from offering stability while secretly hoping it all blows up in Fine Gael’s face. Micheál Martin’s party did not make many demands during Budget negotiations but the areas it focused on were pointed and tied into a pattern of behaviour.

During his Budget speech, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath claimed his party was responsible for €100m to tackle hospital waiting lists, a million home help/support hours, recruitment of more therapists for children with special needs, extra funding for respite care and the retention of the popular Help-to-Buy scheme for first-time buyers.

It tried to claim funding for 700 new gardaí but the party’s focus was on health and housing measures.

It has been noticeable over the past 12 months the amount of Dáil time Mr Martin dedicates to housing and health.

Sometimes you might wonder why he is raising niche health issues which do impact on the lives of thousands, but his strategy is clearly to stitch together all the flaws in the health service into a cacophony of calamity.

Similarly on housing, Mr Martin often raises what can seem like very technical points on the social housing and local authority regulations. But again, this is all part of a long-term strategy of hitting Fine Gael with the same stick.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael will say that financial prudence prevented it from dishing out tax cuts for its base and hope that voters will trust it to run a Government three terms in a row.


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