It is almost possible to feel sorry for Paschal Donohoe…but only almost. As Minister for Public Expenditure, Donohoe has spent the past few weeks scurrying about desperately trying to hold the line on Government spending in advance of the upcoming budget.
Fair enough. That is what you would expect any reasonable and astute Minister for Public Expenditure to do. But, only a few months into the job, Mr Donohoe is showing signs that being reasonable or astute is not his forte.
Instead of taking on the real spending culprits – namely his Cabinet colleagues (and Fine Gael leadership succession rivals), who have been using the August silly season to fly spending kites designed to bolster their individual leadership ambitions, who does Mr Donohoe decide to take on? Pensioners.
In a bizarre outburst, Mr Donohoe took to the airwaves to resolutely set his face against pension increases.
Responding to my proposing a €5 old-age pension increase in the forthcoming budget, Mr Donohoe threw out his chest and declared that it was inappropriate for me and Fianna Fail to try to influence the budget, adding: “Just as we are not in a position to deliver the entire programme for government in a single government, we are not going to be in a position to deliver the entire agreement that we have with Fianna Fail in a single budget.”
But Mr Donohoe was not content to leave it there. According to him, to even countenance a €5-per-week increase could potentially break the country and “…create the kind of politics that has created the cost and difficulty that we want to put behind us as a country and we are not going to go down that path”.
To justify his opposition, he cited Brexit and the US presidential election and asserted that: “We are seeing a very, very different international environment that creates a level of risk and a level of challenge for Ireland that is very different to what we would have anticipated a number of years ago.”
Ok. Now let me calmly and rationally take these outlandish responses one by one and explain to the minister why each is pure rubbish.
First, regarding the very different international environment than anticipated a number of years ago. Only a few months ago – not years – Fine Gael promised that it would increase the pension by €25 per week over the course of the next Dail.
If anyone in Fine Gael doubts it, then let them take a look at pages 10 and 45 of the Fine Gael 2016 manifesto – the commitment is there in black and white.
Fianna Fail’s commitment was to increase the State pension by €30 per week over the same period (see pages 5, 36 and 43 of Fianna Fail’s 2016 manifesto). So this is something upon which both parties largely agree.
Second, we cannot deliver the full programme in a single budget. This is crassness brought to a whole new level. No one is asking for the commitment to be met in full in just one budget, or even in two or three. But it is only reasonable that the implementation starts now, not at some unspecified point in the future.
No one expects this Government, or Dail, to run for a full five years, but that is no excuse for not starting to proportionately implement what was promised. A €5 per week increase now is a fair and proportionate expectation. For this Government to do anything less would be reneging on a commitment made only a few months ago. That would be the return to a cynical kind of politics – and I do not think we should be going down that path.
Thirdly, turning to his claims regarding Brexit and the possible election of Donald Trump. On Brexit, Mr Donohoe’s colleague, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, has repeatedly stated that Brexit will not affect his budgetary calculations this year. Fine Gael drafted its manifesto knowing the vote was looming. There is no mention of any Brexit contingencies in its pensions promise.
As for the impact of a possible Trump presidency on the budget maths, I am reminded of an old country phrase from my childhood. When someone said something truly stupid and inane, the locals would say: tell that to a donkey and he’d give you a kick. If Mr Donohoe and Fine Gael plan to use Donald Trump as an excuse for backing out of their commitment to pensioners, then they will be a lot safer telling that to a donkey.