The introduction to Ireland’s seventh austerity budget, delivered today by Michael Noonan, marked somewhat of a departure from the language of the previous year. On December 5th 2012, Noonan introduced the 2013 budget in entirely economic terms. He spoke of how ‘In the second half of this year, the NTMA has raised over €7 billion in the markets’ and that ‘Ireland has fulfilled 160 separate conditions of the [bail out] programme, and has now drawn down over 80 per cent of the low cost money available’.
There were general references to a ‘growing and developing economy’ and to creating a ‘country where everybody who wants work has a job’. For the most part there was a recognition of economic adversity and a straightforward determination to combat austerity, with only vague allusions to ‘political friends and foes alike’ who should be aware that ‘this Government will not resile from the task in hand.’
Today’s introduction, however, struck a more accusatory tone:
‘The story of insolvent Ireland is familiar to all our people and the sacrifices people have had to make in recent years are well known. Reckless policies were pursued by the Fianna Fáil led Government… Ireland lost its sovereignty and the Troika came to Ireland. The Fianna Fáil led Government collapsed in a shambles and a Fine Gael/Labour Government took office with a mandate to sort out the disaster, to stabilise the economy, to get people back to work and to restore the sovereignty of this Republic.’
The political gloves, it would seem, are off. The 2013 budget introduction did not place specific blame on any person or institution for the Irish financial collapse, merely set out in summary the budget’s aims in combating the debt crisis.
One year later, and the coalition government are back on the offensive, blaming Fianna Fáil government for Ireland’s loss of ‘sovereignty’. While this sovereignty may be literally economic, the full consequences to Ireland’s political independence are made clear by Noonan’s hark back to 1916 through W.B. Yeats.
In tone, the introductory speech to the 2014 budget bears much more similarity to the 2012 budget than that of 2013, when Noonan told of how ‘On this day 90 years ago, on the 6th of December 1921, the Treaty was signed.’ Dick Mulcahy was quoted in 1916 as saying that Britain ‘Gave Ireland back her purse’, and Michael Noonan stated in his speech 90 years later that the Fianna Fáil/Green Government ‘gave the purse away again this time last year as fiscal autonomy was conceded to the IMF and European authorities.’
The consequences of Ireland’s financial disaster are placed firmly at the feet of the previous government in the 2012 and the 2014 budget speeches, but the 2013 budget speech makes no such accusations. Why the change of rhetoric?
The most obvious answer is the political climate when the speeches were made. When the 2012 budget speech was delivered on 6th December 2011, Fine Gael and Labour had defeated Fianna Fáil in a crushing general election that year, and were looking to assert that they were Government to get Ireland out of the recession.
The 2014 budget comes in the wake of damaging revelations about the behaviour of senior officials at Anglo-Irish bank and the rather embarrassing failure of the Seanad reform less than two weeks ago. The aggressiveness with which Michael Noonan attacked the previous Government may have, in this case, been as much about the insecurities of the current Government as it was about the failures of the previous.
The opposition has called on the government to protect education services in the 2014 budget.
In a statement today Michael McGrath, Fianna Fáil and spokesperson for finance, stressed that education has been put at the heart of their 2014 budget proposal and that “it is possible to meet budgetary targets next year wi
thout yet another hike in the student registration fee.”
Mc Grath also criticised Minister for education Ruairi Quinn stating he “needs to learn from the mistakes he has made in the past. The last two budgets were highly regressive in the area of education. Students were hit with two further increases in the college registration fee by a Minister who promised to reverse fee hikes. Post-graduate grants were abolished and the SUSI fiasco caused severe hardship to tens of thousands of students nationwide and now a €250 increase in the third level registration fee next year is to be introduced by this budget.”
Mr McGrath went on to say: “These highly damaging cuts are not necessary and they must stop. There is no reason why education services cannot be protected in Budget 2014. The government can choose to put a high value on education, and place it at the heart of their budget plan for next year.”
The Minister for Health, Dr. James Reilly, said he did “not want any parent to be in a position where they have to decide between buying the groceries and bringing their child to the doctor”, and this would be “another important step” along the road to universal health insurance. Where exactly will the money to fund this level of free care come from?
Today on the streets of Dublin found a variation in opinions on the matter as four out of five lower middle class parents of at least one child under the age of 5 agreed that this was a “great incentive”, “amazing” and “great news”. One woman stated “the doctor doesn’t do anything, most of time they just advise you give your child Calpol for 65 euro”.
A Fianna Fail health spokesman Billy Kelleher pointed out; on a salary of €86,000, he can well afford to pay. This appears to be a common concern on the streets of Dublin on budget day as one woman with a young baby said that “you should have to apply for it and that it needs to be means assessed rather than given away for nothing to those who can definitely afford it”. Two pensioners interviewed today on Henry Street said that everyone should be means tested and that lower income families should be the only ones entitled.
The Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) have reported concern as Kieran Ryan, CEO of the ICGP, said; “It is the policy of the ICGP to support mechanisms for provision of care where ability to pay is not a barrier.”
Dr Darach O’Ciardha, GP and member of the ICGP Executive, continues in saying: “In the current economic climate, we have to assume that if the Government is taking over the burden of paying for these services from the individual, then the money to pay for the provision of these services is coming from somewhere else in the health system. If paying for this is coming from the medical card scheme, without that pot being increased considerably, then other vulnerable groups will be affected most. It would not be fair or reasonable that someone on a high salary, who can afford to pay for GP care for their child, would now get it for free, but that vulnerable people who need medical cards would lose them to pay for it.”
The ICGP calls on the Minister and the government to engage with GPs and other stakeholders without delay to discuss how this proposal to take over the cost of GP visits for Under 5s from the individual might work, the likely impact on population health, how much it is likely to cost and how it will be funded and how the services will be provided on the ground.
Budget Day has arrived, with many cuts already confirmed ahead of the 2.30pm announcement. Under 25’s job seekers weekly rate will be reduced from €144 to €100. Pensioners will be hit with the removal of their telephone allowance, and one in ten pensioners will potentially lose their medical cards.
More to come.