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Sasko Lazarov
Analysis

Jostling between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is all about party identity and dismantling '#FFG'

Party positioning leads to budgetary tensions between coalition partners.

AHEAD OF BUDGET 2024, don’t be surprised if you see a lot more jostling for position between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. 

The two parties were staunch rivals in the past but ever since the confidence and supply agreement, where Fianna Fáil propped up the Fine Gael-led government after the 2016 election, they have had to contend with the #FFG hashtag being bandied about. 

Throw in Sinn Féin’s rising poll numbers and the two parties have a job on their hands in terms of identity and differentiating themselves while they are in coalition together. 

This week there have been reports of “tensions” and a “war of words” between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

It all stemmed from an opinion piece penned by Fine Gael junior ministers Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Martin Heydon and Peter Burke in the Irish Independent calling for the Budget to contain tax breaks of up to €1,000. 

It’s safe to say such a public move didn’t go down too well within Fianna Fáil – with Finance Minister Michael McGrath calling it an “unusual move”. 

Fianna Fáil backbench TDs and senators followed Senator Lisa Chambers in calling it “populist” and playing to the Fine Gael base. 

Budget kite-flying 

Not to state the obvious, but that is exactly what kite-flying like this is – playing to the party base and seeing how a proposal lands. 

Roll on to the parliamentary party meetings held last night – a place where TDs and senators are never shy of sticking the boot in on their coalition colleagues – where Fine Gael TDs said they would not take lectures from their current coalition partners who “crashed the economy”. 

At the Fianna Fáil party meeting, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said junior ministers from Fine Gael had undermined the budgetary process with their opinion piece in the newspaper. 

Fine Gael sources said today that Fianna Fáíl are “being a bit righteous” in that regard, stating that when McGrath was on RTÉ’s Prime Time during the week, he too was revealing what was behind the curtain, listing out proposals of debt reduction, increased capital expenditure and an investment future fund. 

Interesting to note, however, that the two parties are actually on the same page when it comes to tax cuts. 

One senior Fianna Fáil source said both parties are committed to tax reductions – “it’s in the Programme for Government – it’s who we will be targeting and how is the question to be answered”.

They pointed out, however, that op-eds were not part of budget kite-flying in the past but seemingly are now. 

With Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dwindling in their own poll numbers, there is a need for each to point to what slice of the Budget pie they can claim as their own. Particularly as we head towards the latter end of this government’s term. 

Publicly making budget calls is one way to carve out party identity – putting on the record what they stand for and what they are fighting for in Budget 2024. 

It’s not rare, and it has happened before. Cast your mind back to last year, when Leo Varadkar floated the idea of a new €30,000 tax band.

There was similar outcry that such an idea would be put out in a public forum, especially when it was not contained in the PFG. 

Similarly, there were also indications that tax breaks for landlords would be included in last year’s budget. Neither idea came to fruition. 

This year alone, we have had quite a few budget pledges already.

Varadkar has confirmed there will be a pension rise, as has Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys, who also indicated further social welfare rises in areas such as carers and disability allowances. 

On the Fianna Fáil side, in announcing the lifting of the eviction ban, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has strongly indicated that tax breaks for landlords will be included in October’s budget. 

O’Brien as well as Tánaiste Micheál Martin have also said that there are plans to expand the renters’ tax credit out to €1,000 per year.

Lovers tiff

So, is this “bitter coalition row”, as it has been dubbed, all that unusual? 

“It’s all par for the course,” said another Fianna Fáil source, with another stating that it is amazing what a mountain can be made of a molehill as silly season approaches. 

A senior Fine Gael source said: “It’s just positioning. Identity assertion”.

Fine Gael have already indicated that they want the tax bands indexed out so that the higher rate of tax does not have to be paid until someone hits the €50,000 mark

While it is not expected that that will be achieved in this year’s budget, Fine Gael hopes there will be “another big step in that direction” in October. 

The FG junior ministers’ op-ed was all about reminding their voter base that they are still the party that pushes for less income tax being paid by middle-income and above average income earners. 

The Fine Gael source said that ultimately the basis for its participation in this government is to look out for ‘middle Ireland’ – with the party calling card being all about reducing income tax for middle income earners, affordable childcare, lower college fees and home ownership. 

Income tax reduction is the party’s priority – so don’t be surprised – whether you’re in Fianna Fáil or not, if you see more of Fine Gael hammering that home over the coming months.

More op-eds to come perhaps? Maybe from Fianna Fáil next time around as budget kite flying has officially begun. 

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