Saturday, March 31, 2007


This árd fheis will not be about making promises that we cannot deliver, Fine Gael deputy leader Richard Bruton said on Thursday.

Where did we hear that line before?

Oh, yes, here in fact. In this column last week we quoted Seamus Brennan saying that Fianna Fáil’s árd fheis will not be about making promises that we cannot deliver.

We all know what happened after that. We found ourselves caught in a monsoon. It might have lasted only half an hour, but it left the political establishment wholly swamped.

This column, for one, was suckered last week. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to admit that it included this ultra confident prediction: “Unlike other party conferences held so far this season, I don’t anticipate any major announcement on tax cuts, on stamp duty, on tax bands, or on anything that’s going to cost a ball of cash down the line.”

How wrong can you be? Very wrong in my case, though, in fairness, I wasn’t alone in being duped.

So when Fine Gael start telling us that they’re not going to make any promises they can’t deliver, forgive us as we laugh hysterically while quickly finding a spare patch of sand to bury our heads in.

In fairness, you can be sure that Fine Gael won’t be making any major tax announcements for the simple reason that they have already made all their major tax announcements already.

The first part of it was the 2% cut in the standard rate, the Labour part of the deal. Fine Gael’s own portion is the proposed cuts in stamp duty Enda Kenny announced on a slow Thursday during a visit to Rathkeale.

That begged a number of questions. Why then? Why not wait until the árd fheis where you can get maximum impact for expensive — yet definitely populist — concessions on stamp duty?

Part of the answer to this became evident last night during Kenny’s opening speech to the conference and his key line that “the General Election this year will be a referendum on this Government’s handling of the health services”.

That is what you’d call a “raise on the blind” in poker parlance. It is by any measure a massive gamble, saying that the election will turn on health rather than on the economy without fully knowing if those cards will be revealed.

Sure, health is always a core issue. But will a party’s policies on health be more swayable for a majority of voters than its economic and financial policies? It’s a big call. But it has been made: you can see this calculation playing through in the themes that the party has chosen for this morning’s live TV coverage of debates — crime and health.

And yes, like Seamus Brennan a week earlier, Richard Bruton insisted this week that this árd fheis will not be a manifesto launch.

But given that the party will have an almost unfettered chance to push its agendas and candidates this weekend, I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t a couple of major announcement.

But the difference will be that big surprises will be in the areas of health and crime rather in tax, stamp duty or other wallet-fatteners.

Seamus Brennan worried about promises the opposition made and their potential to bankrupt the country. I don’t think (here I go again; a fool never learns) anything Fine Gael will promise this weekend will bankrupt the country financially.

But there are other ways of bankrupting a country. At present, the Oireachtas is debating a draconian piece of legislation proposing tough mandatory sentences, erosions to the right of silence, seven-day detention, restrictive bail laws including electronic monitoring. In the dying days of this government, it has been rushed through quicker than a Bertie Ahern árd fheis promise.

The problem is that there’s no opposition to it from the big parties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (and to a lesser extent Labour) do their Big Bad Wolf impressions huffing and puffing at each other to see who’s toughest. And the perverse creation and ratcheting-up of a crime crisis that simply doesn’t exist has led to the most cynical auction of all.

At last year’s árd fheis, Enda Kenny promised drunk tanks, among other hardchaw policies. That was scary. I’m worried he’ll go too far this year, establish Fine Gael’s law and order credentials by suggesting something even crazier than the Government’s crazy policies; and end up overbidding at an auction that can leave us
all bankrupt when it comes to justice, proportionality and morality.

This is my column from today's Irish Examiner.
Read Enda Kenny's opening address to the FG Ard Fheis here

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