Painful though it may be on Paschal’s post-pandemic purse-strings, it looks like he’s about to lose an extremely lucrative and once reliable revenue stream.
The Taoiseach signalled an imminent hit on his Minister for Finance’s bottom line while under sustained Dáil pressure on Tuesday over the rapidly rising cost of petrol, diesel and home-heating oil.
With Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald determinedly leading the charge and a near apoplectic Danny Healy-Rae bringing up the rear, Micheál Martin was bombarded by demands for his government to do something quickly about this escalating problem.
While he didn’t say straight out that fuel tax is going to be slashed, Micheál repeatedly stressed the issue is “under active consideration”.
Not good enough for Mary Lou McDonald. She said action needs to be taken now because the Dáil is rising for St Patrick’s week on Thursday and the situation has become too serious to be left on the long finger while ministers scatter to all four corners of the globe for the annual shamrock schmoozathon.
“I’m asking you Taoiseach to do it NOW!”
He could bring in a financial resolution at any time of the day and night over the next couple of days – Sinn Féin was willing to stay up and vote it through, full co-operation guaranteed.
“Watch this space,” would be the concise version of Micheál’s response as he danced around the possibility of definitely doing something for people wondering which tank they can afford to fill: the home heating one or the car.
First he came out with a waffly line about how the European Union is taking steps to address the matter. “I can say to the Deputy that there is an EU Commission paper on this – a toolbox emerging – and hopefully within the next day or two it will be published and will be considered” he informed the Sinn Fein leader.
Fancy that. There is “a toolbox emerging” and a European Commission paper to be published.
Never mind what Europe is up to, responded Mary Lou. Unlike Micheál, she wasn’t half as impressed by promised emergence of some toolbox, regarding all that as “additionality”.
The EU can get on with its own business but it doesn’t stop him from cutting excise charges at home, she insisted.
“I don’t want to get into specifics right now,” murmured the Taoiseach, with a nod and a wink.
“But also the Government is giving this very active consideration” he stressed again, adding they were aware of the time pressure this week about getting legislation through this week.
“I appreciate the Deputy’s offer of facilitation of whatever outcome of the Government’s active consideration of this issue will mean.”
Once more with feeling, Micheál?
“The Government is keeping this under very, very active consideration.”
He should have just come out and said it.
So Mary Lou returned to the subject again at the Order of Business, emphasising the need for the Government to move quickly.
“We must act urgently…We are quite insistent,” she urged. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Taoiseach is not taking this initiative.”
Micheál didn’t deny he wasn’t, even though he knew that he was.
He didn’t let on when the Rural Independents, who have been vociferously complaining for some time about rising fuel costs and how they are affecting rural communities in particular, stormed in with bracing support for the Sinn Féin leader’s call for action.
The country “slept-walked” into this crisis, fumed Mattie McGrath. “And blaming the Ukraine – and what goes on there is horrific, look, that’s no excuse and the public know it out there.”
He told the Taoiseach excise tax on fuel could be swept away at the stroke of a pen. But the Taoiseach didn’t need to be told this because he knew some sweeping was already afoot.
“People cannot afford to work, live or play, or, indeed, produce food” wailed Mattie. “People are furious.”
Micheál did not like to hear his Government accused of having somnambulistic tendencies. “We are certainly not sleepwalking into this,” he replied firmly. “This war is 13 days old and it is having, and will continue to have….”
The Roaring Independents erupted.
“What’s 13 days old?” Mattie demanded to know. “This has been going on for years.”
The war, explained Micheál. And before that was the pandemic and that caused huge inflation and the government had to bring in a budget package of €500 million in response.
“The war is going to mean a lot more inflation. The war will mean that life will not be quite the same for 2022, at least, as we thought it was. And that’s all I am saying.”
As for the fuel hikes, needless to say “the matter is under active consideration”.
Given the urgency of the situation, Mary Lou McDonald didn’t think the usual electronic vote on agreeing the Dáil’s schedule for the rest of week was adequate so she called for a “walk through” vote, which she was entitled to do under the rules.
Highly unusual, as the old method of walking through the lobbies is only used now for the election of Taoiseach, the Ceann Comhairle and during confidence votes.
Instead of a walk through there was a roll call and TDs had to call out their votes – “Tá, Níl” – which took up a lot of time and took many back to early mornings in primary school.
Pulling a stunt
Afterwards, Micheál said roll-call episode was farcical. But he didn’t accuse the Sinn Féin leader of pulling a stunt, which, of course, it was.
But the matter didn’t end there. Danny Healy-Rae got stuck in next.
The Government is “raking it in” by taking euro from every litre of fuel sold at the pumps” while poor people perish at home because they can’t afford to heat their houses.
The Government closed Bord na Móna when there was no real alternative and doesn’t want liquid national gas in Shannon. “What do want? Do you want to paralyse the country? Do you want to stop every wheel that’s turning and do you want people to perish with the cold? What do ye want?”
Once more, Micheál dropped his heavy hint about reducing excise.
“Ah lookit, look. Can I just say that the Government is actively considering an issue in terms of fuel price increases. Okay?”
All afternoon, he stuck to his mantra of active consideration.
But by teatime word leaked that legislation to reduce excise will be rushed before the Dáil, perhaps as early as Wednesday night but definitely before the House rises on Thursday. Some reports put the cut at 20c off petrol and 15c off diesel.
Victory can be claimed by Mary Lou and the opposition: don’t thank the Government for the change, thank them for forcing the move.
Although, obviously, it doesn’t go far enough.
That’s Wednesday’s line of attack sorted.