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Miriam Lord: Kite-flying season begins with ChatFGTD solo-run

A pleasingly vicious start to Dáil Éireann’s ancient political pursuit of budget balloon trials

Let’s go fly a kite

See if the people bite

Let’s go fly a kite

And then deny it.


Up through the Twittersphere

In to the media’s ear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite ...

A familiar song there from that old movie favourite, Mary Populist.

No, it’s not about the leader of Sinn Féin, although it could be.

It is to mark the beginning of Dáil Éireann’s annual budget balloon trials which seem to be starting earlier than usual this year.

Could be something to do with global warming but it’s more likely to be an outbreak of general election collywobbles in Fine Gael.

This event is classified as a field sport as all the action happens outside the Dáil chamber.

Members of the Government and their advisers chase around after headlines, sending up ideas for budget changes to see which ones might fly and which will be shot down.

Under the rules of this ancient political pursuit, they cannot admit to having any hand, act or part in sending up pre-budget flyers.

In a Coalition situation, Government partners often form into separate shooting parties. This appears to be the case already with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. For the moment, the Greens are just happy to be out in the fresh air enjoying all the lovely balloons but that won’t last.

During Leaders’ Questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Ivana Bacik alerted Opposition colleagues to the return of this annual ritual. Like the rest of us, she has picked up on not-so-subtle signs from Blueshirt central.

She made her observation when raising the stark findings of the latest report from the childcare charity, Barnardos which found that many children and families are suffering significant hardship due to the cost of living crisis. The survey found that many parents won’t bring a sick child to the doctor because they can’t afford it while one parent reported being afraid to do the washing because of the electricity bill.

The same report was also mentioned by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald who picked out the finding that one-in-five parents struggle to put food on the table and one-in-three is eating less to ensure their children have sufficient food.

Deputy Bacik loves her “we told you so” moments. This time it was the survey figures proving her party’s warning that the Government’s “barrage of tokenistic and untargeted measures” would not be enough to keep the wolf from the door for many families.

The week of the Barnardos report “also appears to mark the beginning of budget kite-flying season” she noted, reminding Leo Varadkar how he has been a critic of the practice of drip-feeding and kite-flying over the years.

“Yet you and your party colleagues, ironically, have been first out of the traps calling for tax cuts in this budget and showing fundamental disrespect for your partners in Government, some of whom have been very open about their critique of this.”

Will nobody think of poor Fianna Fáil?

Fuming, apparently.

With five months still to go until the next budget, Fine Gael has been making noises for a while about delivering significant tax breaks to middle-income earners.

This week, three of the party’s most high-profile junior ministers – aka ChatFGTD -banded together and squeezed out an opinion piece for the Irish Independent calling for more tax relief.

Martin Heydon, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Peter Burke’s opus did not go down well with their main Coalition partner. Nor did the knowledge that they composed it with their Taoiseach’s blessing.

Various Fianna Fáil heavyweights rushed quickly to the scene of the atrocity – the Indo – to declare on the record and anonymously that ChatFGTD’s solo run was populist, uncosted silly season carry-on and “nuts”.

At least they can take comfort in the knowledge that even the Labour Party feels sorry for them to the extent of defending the party in the Dáil.

But if it’s bad enough to disrespect the men and women of Fianna Fáil, it’s even worse to insult the people highlighted in that Bernardos report who are struggling to access services and make ends meet, quivered Ivana.

“It’s disrespectful to them to see Fine Gael Ministers and TDs testing the waters, attempting to consolidate popular support by playing politics, mooting ideas to resonate with the core vote and insulting households trapped in poverty.”

She felt the Taoiseach would have to agree with her that it is impossible to push for tax cuts without making substantial provision for families in poverty and people on social welfare while greatly improving services for children with special needs.

Not from Leo’s perspective.

He argued that a strong economy gives Government choices and the ability to deliver both – reduced taxes and increase welfare payments. Hasn’t Fine Gael been doing it for years in its budgets?

“I’d invite you to backcheck that.”

Fair enough, conceded Ivana.

“But the kite flying by your own party this week suggests that your choice is to insist on a Fine Gael ideological agenda of tax cutting at the expense of providing the necessary public investment to deliver services for people who are struggling to make ends meet.”

Ideology? Did somebody mention ideology?

The Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader was there for it.

Hold me Moncler coat!

“I think your assessment about choices and trade-offs is fundamentally wrong. If you pursue the right economic policies, the right policies on trade and the right foreign policies, you grow the cake and there can be more for everyone,” said the Taoiseach, speaking more slowly than usual so Professor Bacik could fully appreciate his argument and learn from it.

“If you pursue the wrong policies, then the cake shrinks and there is less for everyone. That’s the different approach and different philosophy we have.”

Having carefully explained to Ivana how his cake is small and her other small cake is far away, he concluded that the Government’s ongoing record of cutting tax and increasing spending vindicates his position.

“Shows that we’re right, and you’re wrong in terms of our understanding as to how the economy works.”

So there.

Back outside, the Minister for Finance (Fianna Fáil) was at the opening of a new housing development in Dublin’s Ashtown and doing his best to burst ChatFGTD’s balloon and ground their kites.

Contrary to many media reports there is no row between the FF and FG over the latter’s budget solo-runs, Michael McGrath viciously purred. Then again, when the junior ministers’ provocative op-ed first appeared the forcefully reserved McGrath was clearly furious, reportedly even raising an eyebrow when murmuring aggressively that the move was “an unusual approach”.

Accusations of “bullying” are being bandied about now by irate Fianna Fáilers, furious at being blindsided by their supposed Coalition partners pushing without consultation for an €1,000 tax cut for middle-income earners.

Was he or will he be bullied over his budget by Fine Gael?

“Certainly not” the other Fianna Fáil minister for Cork South Central gently thundered.

“Anybody who knows me well enough will know that I can be as tough as anybody else when it comes to negotiations.”

Nobody puts Michael in the corner.

It’s been a pleasingly vicious start to the new kite-flying season.

With a lot more to come.