Analysis of their manifestos shows that, in policy terms, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could not be closer
My grandmother Elizabeth (Lily) Kinsella left school the year after the Constitution was signed – about twenty-two Dáils ago.
She was a working mother decades before the phrase had cultural currency. Lily ran several businesses, she was busier than almost everyone else around her, and she loved it. Like many citizens, Lily can’t believe what’s happened to the country since she retired, as she remembers a country where the average person had a lot less than the average person has today.
Expressed in today’s US dollars, in 1950, GDP per person was $685 – today, GDP per person is over $50,000. Ireland is a much, much richer place than it was the year my father was born. People like Lily did a lot to increase Ireland’s wealth over this period.
Lily is whip-smart. She knows what a bond is, she knows what a bondholder is, and like many Irish people, she has been educated by the economic crisis. She understands that if taxes go down, public service levels have to fall eventually. Lily has seen the state go bust three times.
She doesn’t see any difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. She feels they’ll do what they have to do because they love power. The Civil War parties are arch-pragmatists, and will coalesce should the votes demand they should.
Looking at the parties’ manifestos, it is clear they can coalesce without any serious difficulty. Both manifestos, which I’ve analysed in great detail, can be summarised as follows: Taxes down, current spending up, capital spending up. It was ever thus.
The general themes both parties explore are practically identical. Without googling, which party will focus on decent jobs, tackling crime, cutting family costs and homelessness, and which party wants more and better jobs, making work pay, and investment in better services?
More specifically, which party will offer €2,000 to families to help meet childcare expenses? They both will. Which party will build a rainy day fund? Both will. Both parties want more gardaí, nurses and doctors, and both agree about 10,000 in total are what are required.
Both want to build more houses, between 125,000 and 150,000 private ones and between 35,000 and 45,000 public houses. Both want more apprenticeships, with Fine Gael promising 31,000 and Fianna Fáil promising 45,000. Both will raise the state pension, Fine Gael by €25 and Fianna Fáil by €30 in the lifetime of the next government. Both want to take an axe to USC, but Fianna Fáil wants to keep it for those earning over 80 grand, which is fine as these citizens pay most of the USC anyway and the public has very little sympathy. Both want rainy day funds of between €2.5 billion and €4 billion. Both make strong statements on climate change, recognising the huge fines the exchequer will be hit with in the early 2020s if we don’t get our act together on emissions. Both have similar ideas about public sector reform, that is, there should be some, but not too much.
And both agree there will be buckets of cash to spend on everything, with Fianna Fáil estimating the envelope at €8.6 billion and Fine Gael assuming over €12 billion.
Neither party wants to deal directly with the 8th amendment, neither party really deals effectively with adult or child mental health. Neither party has a credible plan for broadening the tax base, or for its priorities should they find themselves in a vacuum of fiscal space. There are no ‘bands’ for example, where should only €3 billion be available, they will implement policies A, B, and C, and if there are €6 billion available, the parties will implement policies A through F.
There are loads of good ideas in both manifestos. For sheer detail and thoughtfulness, the Fine Gael manifesto is the best of all the parties, by far, with Sinn Féin’s manifesto a distant second, though Sinn Féin does get an honourable mention for being the only party to discuss the volatility of the international situation up front in its policy document.
Fine Gael suggests building in a Programme for Government Delivery Unit in every government department to make sure commitments are being honoured. Fianna Fáil suggests a national infrastructure commission to take a longer view on infrastructure spending. Fine Gael’s citizen’s assembly idea is a nice one but we’ve seen how the constitutional convention’s recommendations were ignored. Empowering local decision-makers is a theme running right across both parties’ manifestos.
So little effectively separates these parties at the policy level, you can actually see where negotiations would take place. Fianna Fáil for example, doesn’t like Irish Water and wants to cap the local property tax.
Fine Gael will more than likely change Irish Water’s make-up anyway early in the next government, because it has been such a disaster, and has already implemented a cap of sorts in any case.
Lily Kinsella is right. If the voters will it, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will coalesce because both love power. In policy terms they could not be closer. The effects of surrendering the main opposition title to Sinn Féin for five years may well be a strategic blunder politically, but unless the polls are extremely wrong, the solid seat majority sees the two civil war parties becoming one, 100 years after 1916, which I have to say I, personally, find rather fitting.