Irish election: What’s on offer from the main parties

Rory Geraghty looks ahead to the Irish elections this Thursday, explaining how Fine Gael are proposing a much harsher medicine than has already been experienced under Fianna Fail.

By Rory Geraghty

Politics in Ireland over the last three years has been pretty bleak. Huge cutbacks in public expenditure and welfare payments, due to a massive increase in public debt, have left the country hurting pretty badly. The root of a lot of these problems stems back to September 2008 when the government, joined by all other political parties bar Labour, decided to issue a blanket guarantee to all deposits and debts in the Irish banks.

The result of this decision was the linking of private banking debt to public debt. The governing Fianna Fail Party, and their coalition partners The Greens, were supported in this decision by the Irish Tory Party, Fine Gael the largest opposition group in the Dail.

The most recent opinion polls have Fine Gael on course to win in the region of 75 seats. To reach an overall majority they will need to get 83 members elected. The same polls also suggest that the governing Fianna Fail Party will be removed from office and their coalition partners, The Greens, could lose all six of their current seats.

Labour have more than doubled their vote since the last General Election in 2007 and look on course to increase their seats from 20 to 40+. Going on that opinion poll Fine Gael could well be in with a shot of getting an overall majority, something that is not very common in Irish politics.

This is actually quite frightening. Fine Gael are proposing a much harsher medicine than has already been experienced under Fianna Fail. In many ways their suggestions mirror David Cameron’s vision for “Big Society” and a small government.

Recently, on the popular current affairs show: Late Night with Vincent Browne, Fine Gael’s poster boy, Leo Varadkar, delivered his vision for a new Ireland. This was an Ireland where social welfare is slashed, public services curbed back substantially and the wealthy continue to enjoy tax breaks that are far higher than the EU average. This is Leo’s Ireland but Leo isn’t Ireland and his vision for a new Ireland is not what Ireland needs.

Firstly, his and his party’s opposition to a property tax is farcical. Most Irish social commentators agree that property taxes are amongst the most progressive forms of taxation. They disproportionally affect the rich, who may own multiple properties. Furthermore they become a means to attack tax exiles many of whom own multiple properties in Ireland but deliberately fail to reside in the country for more than one third of the year, thus escaping tax on their income.

Secondly, Leo and his party want a reduction in public service workers by 30,000 yet the OECD report on the Irish public service (published about three years ago), stated that the size of Ireland’s public service was not disproportionally big for the size of our population. What Fine Gael really means when they say that they want to reduce our public service is that they want to privatise our services.

They are using this crisis to push a right wing, anti-public service ideology that in good times they would not be able to justify. The poorest in society are more reliant on public services as they are less likely to be able to pay for private health care, more reliant on public transport and more reliant on public housing schemes. Just as Fine Gael’s opposition to a property tax aims to support the rich, so too does their ambition to destroy the public service.

On the show, two of the other panelists by Leo’s side were Dr Mary Murphy, a senior lecturer in Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and Michael Taft, the economic advisor to the Irish branch of Unite the Union. Juxtaposing both of them against Leo was quite interesting particularly when they left him speechless after he falsely claimed that a rise in VAT did not disproportionally affect the poor.

Mr Taft’s response was swift and impressive as he reeled off studies by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and various other bodies which highlighted that increases in VAT do disproportionally affect the least well off and that it is a very regressive tax; Dr Murphy’s response was one based in complete shock, initially turning to Leo saying “I would have thought that this was a widely known thing” before going on to provide examples of how this was the case.

Though Leo’s blind stubbornness left him defending his party’s proposal of a 2 per cent increase in VAT, it was clear to both the viewer and the host that this was a means to again attack the more vulnerable in society whilst giving the wealthier a free pass. For more on the regressiveness of VAT, see the Horton/Reed analysis on Left Foot Forward from earlier this month.

Leo and Fine Gael are posing a very serious threat to the Irish Labour Party. They desire a front loading of cuts that the Irish economy just cannot take. Their vision for Ireland is an Ireland of greater inequality and greater social deprivation. They have no regard for the poor or the vulnerable.

It is to be hoped that as Irish people go to the polls next week they realise exactly what they are voting for. On the one hand the Labour Party is proposing to spread the cuts out over a longer period of time, invest in job creation and make some increases in taxation to ensure the Irish Economy is fixed; Fine Gael want to front load cuts and destroy public services. The only thing we can be certain of is that there will be a new government post February 25th, either Labour or Fine Gael-led.

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