The bond markets have responded well to Finance Minister Pearse Doherty’s first budget, with the articulate Sinn Fein Donegal TD handling himself adeptly on a series of US, UK and European business news shows. The fact that new Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail coalition increased welfare spending whilst not touching the taxation of foreign multinationals was remarked upon. Taxes on the incomes of those earning over €100k have increased, as has employers PRSI, but most of those taxes have proven to be symbolic. They have raised a few hundred million out of a nation budget of over €105 billion. The reality is that Doherty has funded most of his substantial welfare increases (the €25 per week dole and pension increases were showstoppers) from borrowing, and whilst the markets have cut Doherty some slack this time, he’s hedging everything on growth funding (with accompanying growth in tax revenue) next year’s splashout. There was much sniggering in Ireland at Doherty’s brandishing of previous Irish government’s refusal to default on sovereign debt as a means of securing his own reputation.
Sinn Fein have continued to be masters of political communication, with the party lodged in the mid-thirties, neck and necking with Paschal Donohoe’s Fine Gael, whilst the Michael McGrath-led coalition partners have seen their poll rating drop into single digits. “Fianna Fail: why?” was an effective FG slogan attacking the government.
The surprise poll winners of recent months have been Aontú, holding at a steady 9% on a platform of immigration control (although not racism) and taunting Sinn Fein for not delivering on its more populist policies. Whilst issues like the Israeli ambassador still being in the country and US planes still landing in Shannon have little traction with voters, they do catch the attention of the media and Sinn Fein’s young urban vote. Aontú also took a leaf from Sinn Fein’s book by employing savvy social media operators who flooded Twitter and TikTok with clips of SF TDs in opposition saying the exact opposite of what they say as ministers. “The Two Faces of Sinn Fein Led by MaryTwo McDonald” was one memorable slogan.
One serious defeat for the government was the failure of the Right to Housing referendum, which was defeated 58/42, under a deluge of attacks that it would allow the government to confiscate private property without compensation, and that it would allow every refugee to claim a house on arrival. The campaign collapsed when housing minister Eoin O’Broin admitted that it was only a symbolic right and could not actually be enforced by a court. His discovery as minister that he faced all the same supply, legal, material and labour problems as his predecessors came as a shock, and he visibly aged more than any other member of the cabinet. He was reduced to driving more private landlords out of the market to prove he was doing something.
One other challenge facing the party has been a spike in public disorder by gangs of youths under the impression that Sinn Fein in government would order the Gardai to leave them alone. Given that a lot of the incidents were occurring in Sinn Fein heartland vote areas it wasn’t long before older SF voters were demanding action, and the minister for justice was ordering a tougher line. This is turn let to accusations of betrayal (with the parties of the left quick to come out with the Fianna Fein slur) by the youths involved and a number of SF TDs offices being torched and having to be protected by shielded Gardai.
The party, heading into the local elections, is stacking a lot of chips on the United Ireland referendum, to be held on the same day as the elections in the hope it will encourage their core vote to turn out. The voters will be asked a simple question: “Do you support the reunification of Ireland?”. Polls say it will pass easily, but polls are moving as those campaigning against point out that it is the Irish version of Brexit, with no detail given as to what is being voted on. The government has refused to rule out that it will use the result as the final say on whatever agreement is arrived at with regards to a future agreement.