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Eamonn Farrell
Analysis

'Don't let the populists in': Warnings of left-wing Govt tax hikes at FG conference

There were big questions being asked at the FG conference as ministers said they’re fighting for re-election to government.

FINE GAEL APPEARS to be in election-mode, with party leader Leo Varadkar hitting out at Sinn Féin and the formation of any left-wing government at today’s special party conference in Maynooth today. 

Though the party is trailing more than ten points behind Sinn Féin in most of the more recent opinion polls, many had consigned the party to a life on the opposition benches for the next few years.

However, ministers were out in force today stating that Fine Gael was ready to fight for a fourth term in government. 

Enterprise Minister Simon Coveney, the grassroots favourite, gave an opening speech at the Glenroyal Hotel today,  stating that the party wants to stick around.

Higher Education Minister Simon Harris (and hotly tipped future party leader) received a standing ovation after a call-to-arms speech in which he declared: 

“For those who keep on writing articles about this party being tired, or too long in government: we’ve never been more energised.

“The populists are at the gates of government in this country and we are not going to let them in.”

Cost of a left-wing government, according to Varadkar

This was followed by more election speak from the Taoiseach who warned that a left-wing government would cost an average couple on average incomes at least €6,000 a year.

Varadkar told Fine Gael members this evening that he wants to continue cutting personal income taxes, pointing out how the party had increased the entry point for the 40% entry rate from €33,000 to €42,000 from next year.

The higher entry point is worth €3,000 to someone earning €40,000 or more or €6,000 to a couple both earning €40,000 or more, he said, pledging that he wants to go further.

“That was fought tooth and nail by Sinn Féin, by the Social Democrats, by Labour, by a lot of the Independents,” he said.

“So if you’re an average couple on the average salary, the price of a left-wing government is €6,000 a year and we can ensure that gap gets wider if we can get a fourth term in government – one of the very good reasons why we should; money in your pocket.”

It’s not unusual for Fine Gael and Sinn Féin to take potshots at one another – there were criticisms levelled last week at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. 

272Fine Gael Special Conference_90693351 Delegates applaud at a question and answer session at the FG conference in Maynooth today. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

There were big questions being asked at today’s conference, such as: How will the party elect its next leader; who might that be; who is interested in running for Europe next year; and who will be the Fine Gael presidential candidate for 2025?

There is strong speculation that a general election could be held towards the end of 2024, ahead of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail-Green Party coalition expiring in the spring of 2025.

Asked about a possible date for a general election, Varadkar said: “Sometimes elections happen on you, and sometimes you get to call them.”

He said he had not had any “detailed discussions” with Fianna Fail leader and Tanaiste Micheal Martin, nor the Green Party leader Transport Minister Eamon Ryan about when an election would be held.

269Fine Gael Special Conference_90693350 Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

Sinn Féin

But one question got a clear answer this evening. Would Fine Gael do business with Sinn Féin if those were the numbers next time around?

One young Fine Gaeler asked the Taoiseach to reiterate his view on such things at this evening’s questions and answers session.

Varadkar said Sinn Fein-led government in the future was something that deeply worried him.

They are “always making the populist calls, always making the wrong calls”, he said.

He said that he had learned from being in government during difficult periods, including the pandemic, adding that the key to politics was “judgment and making the big calls and getting them right”.

“And when I look back over Sinn Féin for the past 30 years, they’ve made all the wrong calls on all the big questions, and I believe they will do so again.”

He criticised Sinn Féin’s stance towards the armed struggle in Northern Ireland, its policy in relation to the EU, and the party’s call to ‘burn the bondholders’ following the financial crash.

Varadkar said that party had been “flirting and calling for zero-Covid” during the pandemic, and would turn Ireland’s allies into enemies.

He said of their foreign policy: “To punch above our weight you have to box clever, and when I see some of the things they’re coming out with now, (they) are just knee-jerk and emotional-response policies.”

“They think in their minds that they would get the United States behind a United Ireland. They wouldn’t, they would actually turn our friends into enemies. They would fall out with the United States,” he said, stating that their foreign policy ideals would be incompatible with the US position.

209Fine Gael Special Conference_90693264 Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

Another question being asked: How will Fine Gael elect its next leader?

That was one question that was debated among the grassroots members of the party at one of the conference sessions.

Under the current system, the Fine Gael parliamentary party has the most weight, accounting for 65% of the vote, while ordinary members contribute 25% and councillors 10%.

The next leader of FG?

While Leo Varadkar shut down criticisms this year that his leadership of Fine Gael is in any kind of  “drift”, labelling the claim “not fair”, the party was looking to the future today. 

There was a lively debate among party members on how to elect the next leader, select a presidential candidate and vote on a future programme for government.

One party member from Dublin Bay South said in his view, the last leadership election was “disappointing”. 

While he said Simon Coveney and Varadkar were both suitable for the job, he felt the ordinary members of the party should have more of a say, calling the current system as “divisive”. 

party-leader-and-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-during-a-fine-gael-special-conference-at-the-glenroyal-hotel-maynooth-co-kildare-picture-date-saturday-november-18-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Back in 2017, when Varadkar battled it out against his party colleague Simon Coveney, the final count, including all three electoral colleges, saw him win with 60% to Coveney’s 40%. The electoral college breakdown was was follows:

  • Parliamentary party: 70:30
  • Local public representatives: 55:45
  • Membership: 65:35

While some grassroots members spoke about how they wanted to have more of a say in the future about who leads the party, calling for one member, one vote, former party leader Alan Dukes said he believed only TDs, Senators and MEPs should be allowed vote for the next leader. 

Seán Finan, former President of Macra, told the crowd attending the debate that the weighted percentage for members should increase or the party runs the risk of losing people who want a say and who are important to the party’s success. 

‘We’re different to FF’

Fine Gael Councillor for Meath County Council Maria Murphy said there needed to be more balance across members in the election of a future leader, in how the party selects it presidential candidate in 2025, and also in how it signs off on whatever a future programme for government might be. 

Whatever the future might hold, and depending on whether Fine Gael makes it into a coalition that will form the next government, Murphy said one thing needs to be made clear – that “Fine Gael is not Fianna Fáil”. 

She said any future programme for government “has to clearly reflect that”, while stating that the “next election is not over by a long shot”. 

Whoever might be the next leader or in the next government, that is still up for debate.  First comes the local and European elections in June. 

“We’ve almost all our candidates now selected for local elections – I think we’ve got 70% – so we’ll have them pretty much all done by Christmas.

“Just under 90% of our councillors running for re-election – and then a huge number of really interesting new candidates, young, old, male, female, some really impressive people who, I think quite frankly, are future TDs and senators if they can get over the first hurdle of getting elected to the council next June,” Varadkar said today.

“And then of course, after that we will focus on plans for the general election, but it’s the Europeans and locals that come first.”

left-to-right-enterprise-minister-simon-coveney-taoiseach-and-fine-gael-leader-leo-varadkar-and-eu-commissioner-mairead-mcguinness-speak-at-a-fine-gael-special-conference-glenroyal-hotel-maynoot Enterprise Minister Simon Coveney, Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, and EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness speak at a Fine Gael special conference, Glenroyal Hotel, Maynooth. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

European hopefuls?

A number of names were doing the rounds today as possible candidates interested in a run for Europe, such as Minister of State Josepha Madigan, Senator Regina Doherty, Senator Barry Ward and Dublin South West TD Colm Brophy along with Senators Tim Lombard and Jerry Buttimer. 

Ireland’s EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, who was standing next to Varadkar during the media event today, was asked whether she intended to run for the presidency in 2025.

Her term as Commissioner is due to end next summer, with it in Fianna Fáil’s gift to name her successor. 

“I’ve said very publicly that I am willing to serve again, but that’s a decision of government, and beyond that, who knows.”

Today, Coveney described next year as a “watershed moment” in Irish politics, and with local, European and a possible general election on the cards, that very much appears to be the case. 

 

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