By Cillian Sherlock, PA
Tánaiste Micheál Martin has moved to cool some tensions from within the Government by calling for coherence and “collective Cabinet responsibility”.
It comes after three Fine Gael junior ministers wrote an opinion piece calling for full-time workers on a wage of €52,000 to get €1,000 back in tax relief – a move that has irked some in Fianna Fáil.
Speaking in Co Cavan, the Fianna Fáil leader suggested he was not focusing directly on any particular party during his reported comments to his parliamentary party about adherence to the budgetary process.
“There is a process there in terms of how we arrive at a budget,” Mr Martin said, adding that the next “significant” step will be the summer economic statement in July, which will outline the budget.
“We’ve been reducing (income) tax for the last three years,” he said
“In line with the programme for government, all three parties have signed up to the programme for government for reducing income tax. We want it spread to as many workers as possible, but there are other priorities as well that we will have to consider.
“I think government must act with coherence and collective Cabinet responsibility,” he said.
Mr Martin added that the programme for government – agreed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party – was the “glue” holding the coalition together.
He said that it was “legitimate” to raise policy priorities within their parliamentary parties, but “government must act coherently and collectively”.
“That would be my perspective on it and I think we did a very good job last year, and in previous years. I think we can do it again this year.”
He insisted that he did not use the word “unhelpful” during the parliamentary party meeting in relation to the intervention from the Fine Gael junior ministers, but instead told his party colleagues that it would be “far better” if they worked through Government processes in relation to the budget.
It comes after one of the three Fine Gael junior ministers who wrote the op-ed defended the move by saying they were articulating a long-standing party position on tax.
Minister of State Martin Heydon and two other Fine Gael ministers – including a junior finance minister – called for a full-time worker on a wage of €52,000 to get €1,000 back in tax relief in the next budget.
As Budget 2024 will be Michael McGrath from Fianna Fáil’s first as finance minister, the opinion piece was seen by some as “unhelpful” to their coalition partner.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today With Claire Bryne, Mr Heydon said there was a need for a debate on the current surplus in the State finances.
“It’s a seminal moment for our country, when you’re talking about this year having a budget surplus of 10 billion euro, next year that could be up to 16 billion euro,” he said.
Asked if they wrote the piece because of a perception that Fianna Fáil would not want to take the tax measure, he said: “This isn’t about Fianna Fáil.”
He later added: “Fianna Fáil were not our target audience here.”
He added that every party in the Dáil should be articulating what choices they would make.
“The huge threat to our economy here is that we are an outlier by international standards, that the highest rate of tax kicks in for Irish workers much earlier,” he said.
Mr Heydon said party leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had been aware they were writing the opinion piece.
Speaking on the same programme, Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said it was a clear sign that Fine Gael was talking to its own voting base.
“It was a vote-getting exercise, that’s purely what it was,” she said.
Ms Whitmore accused Fine Gael of using the surplus in the State finances as a “slush fund for its own political party purposes”.
“That is not the way that we should be talking about how we’re going to actually spend the surplus that we have, this surplus is precarious and we have been consistently told that it is not guaranteed,” she said.
Ms Whitmore called for a full Dáil debate on what was going to happen with the money, with the Social Democrats calling for “investment in the future” including infrastructure.
Mr Heydon rejected the assertion that Fine Gael was using the surplus as a slush fund but welcomed the call for a full Dáil debate.
He said this was because opposition parties “promise everything to everybody”.
“I’d love to hear what their priorities are and how they do spend and that’s the type of debate we have, and I think in a healthy democracy this is a healthy thing to do,” he said.
Asked if the opinion piece was an attempt to distinguish the party from Fianna Fáil on tax issues ahead of an election, Mr Heydon said: “There is no election on the horizon.”
He added that Fine Gael was “the party of enterprise and reward”.
My Heydon said the opinion piece was “very broad ranging” and included other proposals distinct from the tax package to give support “to the squeezed middle”.
The other measures included resources for the housing crisis, National Development Plan ceilings and an anti-austerity fund.
Asked if the figure of 1.9 million people benefitting from the tax proposal was a stretch, the minister said: “No, because look, our taxation system is progressive. So 1.9 million people would benefit from this progressively, up to the middle-income earners.”
Mr Heydon said there was “a good coalition partnership” which was working together on joint initiatives.
But he added that he did not think there was “anything wrong” with publicly articulating key priorities.