Fine Gael’s ‘Five a Side’ gang should speak up now on budget issuesImage

Pictured: FG TD Pat Deery

Imagine if a group were formed for a specific purpose but under the guise of a more innocuous pursuit. In the 1980s, alarmed at the harsh policy of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory moderate Francis Pym created a group called Centre Forward to argue for a different direction. He reassured that it was just a ‘dining club’, a harmless discussion group to ‘explore policy, but in reality (wink, wink) it was planned to develop into something more substantial. Alas, it stayed as a ‘dining club’, quaffing wines and denouncing the leader, but Thatcher was unmoved and Centre Forward ended up not scoring any policy goals.

To continue with this football metaphor, is it to be the same with Fine Gael’s famous Five a Side gang?  This is the informal group of FG backbenchers which meets for fun of midweek soccer games, but which also has a common perspective, close to the party’s core views on economics. They have urged the Government to keep to its Troika-driven aim of getting the country competitive again and seeing off the Labour demands for a slackening in the programme. But recently, in the run up the budget, they’ve been nowhere to be seen. This is despite the constant pronouncements from Joan Burton about the need to protect her oversized welfare spend, even to the extent of heaping further pressure on SMEs and the self-employed with a new mooted increased in PRSI. Her latest proposal has brought strong reaction from IBEC, the Smalls Firms Association and Chambers Ireland – the organisations that represent the very backbone of our economy. A J Noonan, Chairman of the Small Firms Association, denounced the PRSI proposal as anti-business and said he hoped Fine Gael ‘would have an ounce of pro-business sense and oppose this.’

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FG TD Eoghan Murphy

But there’s not been a peep out of Fine Gael, either from Jobs Minister Richard Burton or from the Five A Side group who sternly told us a few months back that they would steady the fiscal ship, speak up for the squeezed middle classes and put a stop to the Labour wobbles. True to the soccer parallel, the group has been on a summer break while Burton has floated other alarming balloons (call them ‘long balls’) and even tried to muddy the waters with proposals like an increase in the minimum wage and, a longer term aim, changing (ie increasing) the dole so it was related to an applicant’s previous income – even if it was a high income.

Either way, Burton has stayed on the field, much to the dismay of the small business sector (our jobs creators!) and with little response from the Five A Side group with the lone exception of Pat Deery the FG TD for Carlow. And now it looks like, on the bigger picture, Labour may have got its way with reports of a retreat from the 3.1 billion target to something more like 2.7 bn. So Burton gets to keep her budget, the public sector continues to be protected and the squeezed middle gets hit again.

The other aspect to this is the sorely missed absence of Lucinda Creighton. With Creighton gone, a key FG force against the Labour demands is removed from the centre of the party, and government. She has even had a retrospective pop at the Labour Relations Commission chairman, Kieran Mulvey over the way she had felt unable to comment on the Croke Park 2 negotiations. It was ‘after the event’, but at least it was a protest, unlike the silence from the Five a Side boys. So who else is there in FG to shout down the Labour demands for ignoring the Troika terms and not getting us match-fit again? Creighton’s fellow ideologue, Varadkar seems to have  relented on the 3.1 bn figure, so long as ‘middle calls tax payers are protected.’ But, frustratingly, he doesn’t say how. Meanwhile the big beasts of Cabinet are too preoccupied in balancing the books to fight their case publicly. Which is where the FG backbenchers come in, either Five a Side or others. But don’t hold your breath. And as for Fianna Fail  (the original SME party), they don’t know which way to run these days and are apparently even thinking of veering to the left.

So maybe the Five a Side gang will get their kit back on and take to the field. But they better hurry up, because the budget game is well underway. And that ‘long ball’ strategist Joan Burton has been on the pitch for a while and may even be about to produce a result – for herself. Meanwhile, the small business sector, our job creators wonder who exactly in Leinster House will really defend them.