Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has urged Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to stop rowing in public over tax cuts in the budget and to do their negotiations behind “closed doors”.
The public would be “rightly annoyed” if the Coalition parties continued to express public differences over how to frame the budget, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications said.
“The budget is the time to set out what we are doing on the economic management of the country. I think the public would get rightly annoyed if we spent the next four months doing the budget negotiations in public.
“That would only confuse the public and I don’t think we would get the balance right. I think there would be a race on about who could promise the public most,” Mr Ryan said.
In comments aimed at diffusing the row between his party’s Coalition partners he said budget negotiations “are best done behind closed doors, and not promising everybody everything”.
“I am old enough to remember the country falling a few times because we did not get the economic strategy right,” Mr Ryan said, adding: the budget is about getting priorities right. The best thing to do it is not on the national airwaves but in a collaborative way.”
Earlier on Thursday, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney denied there were any tensions in the Coalition over the upcoming budget or that anyone was being bullied.
A meeting of Fine Gael’s Senators and TDs on Wednesday night heard widespread support for three junior ministers who pushed for tax cuts in a newspaper article that led to a backlash from their Coalition partners in Fianna Fáil.
The Fine Gael meeting heard the party should not take lectures from their current Coalition partners who “crashed the economy”, as a war of words within the Government deepened.
Elsewhere, at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil party, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said the Fine Gael junior ministers had undermined the budgetary process.
Responding to a question about an article in the Irish Independent on Monday in which the three Fine Gael ministers called for tax breaks of €1,000 for the average family in the next budget, Mr Coveney said the article had been an opinion piece that reflected Fine Gael policy.
“I don’t think there was an intention to upset anyone. It was an opinion piece,” the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.
“Three junior ministers were outlining again a policy which I support, which is that when the economy is growing, that we should give, what many people call the squeezed middle – in other words, people who are middle income – a break from a tax point of view to allow them take home more of the money that they earn themselves for their families,” Mr Coveney said.
“And that’s what we did last year in the budget. That’s what we did the year before. And, you know, because the Irish economy is as strong as it is, we can afford to increase pensions, to increase welfare rates, to reduce the cost of childcare, to invest in education, but also to give people who are working hard ... a break as well.
“We do think that people who are on middle incomes should be able to take home more of the money that they earn for themselves.” Mr Coveney said.
He denied Minister for Finance Michael McGrath was being bullied. “Let’s be clear, nobody’s bullying anybody. And you know, there are lots of senior mature politicians in Government and in the different parties in Government.
“Just because we’re in Coalition doesn’t mean we’re the same. You know, different parties have different priorities in Government and at different times, those priorities get to appear in newspapers and opinion pieces and so on. And this is no different to that,” Mr Coveney said.
The Minister pointed out he did not attend the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting as he was en route to Brussels.
“What I would say is that this is a good Coalition Government. The parties have worked well together. That doesn’t mean that the parties have the same views all the time when it comes to policy.
Sources at the weekly Fine Gael meeting said Michael Creed, the former minister for agriculture, said Fine Gael “shouldn’t take lectures from those who crashed the economy” and also told the meeting that as far as he was concerned “they’re still on probation in respect of their fiscal probity”.
He was backed up in his comments by Senator Garret Ahearn, who said the only reason the Government was in a position to cut taxes was because Fine Gael had rebuilt the economy after Fianna Fáil had caused the crash.
At the Fianna Fáil meeting Mr Martin said the Government was engaged in a collective budgetary process and would make a collective decision on the budget.
“Ministers of State writing op-eds is not helpful, it undermines this process,” he told the meeting, urging his TDs and senators to engage with Ministers directly on suggestions or proposals, saying the budget would be guided by the programme for government.
He “underlined”, sources said, that Minister for Finance Michael McGrath has overall responsibility for the budget process and said he would “insist” Mr McGrath is “given the space” to carry out this work, adding that “the public would expect no less”.
Asked if he felt he was being bullied over the budget, Mr McGrath replied: “Certainly not. Anybody who knows me will know that I can be as tough as anybody else when it comes to negotiations. I will always be conciliatory and polite.
“But I can be as firm as I need to be. And I will be.”
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness described Fine Gael’s proposed tax cuts for middle income families as “kite flying”.
Mr McGuinness told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that such comments were part of the pre-Budget process that every political party entered into every year.
“Every year you have a case being thrown in relation to what one party wants and what another party wants. And I think now we’re into the third year of this coalition so tensions are far greater than what they would be for the last two years. But what is being asked for, I think, is reasonable. It’s an indication of where the party stands. I don’t dispute that.”