The Dublin government has been accused of launching its re-election campaign after its spending plans were published yesterday.
An overall increase of 6 per cent in spending is provided for in its Estimates for 2005, published yesterday, and this will increase following planned increases in social welfare.
Nevertheless, there was opposition criticism, particularly over a planned initiative to provide a new ‘doctor visit only’ medical card.
Labour’s finance spokeswoman, Ms Joan Burton, said the plan would create a three-tier health service in which some people could go to the doctor but would be unable to pay for medicine.
Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman, Mr Caoimhghin O Caolain, said it was clear the package signalled the start of Fianna Fail’s re-election campaign for 2007.
“Very belatedly, they are addressing some of the promises they left unfilled, most notably in the medical card area,” he said.
But Mr O Caolain said the medical card initiative fell short of the Government’s commitment in 2002 to extend the entitlement for the cards to an additional 200,000 people.
Health spending will rise by 9 per cent and the education budget by 8 per cent, but the Minister for Finance, Mr Cowen, said spending had to be kept pegged to inflation and tax growth.
Although the threat of higher oil prices, a falling dollar and a weakening US economy could affect the expected 5 per cent growth figures for the 26 Counties, Mr Cowen described the outlook as “fairly positive”.
Ruling out rash spending increases, he said: “An expenditure spree in a buoyant economy would simply overheat our economy, lead to inflationary pressures and excessive wage demands and cause serious damage to our international competitiveness. We have come too far to expose ourselves to such a threat.”
The exchequer will be O700 million in deficit by the end of the year, Mr Cowen expected, instead of the O2.3 billion predicted on last year.
The Estimates have been viewed in the context of an effort by the Dublin government to reinvent iteslf as a party of the people in time for the next general election.
The Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, was accused of cynically donning the clothes of him increasingly popular rivals by declaring himself to be a “socialist” and that his party followed a “republican philosophy” last weekend.
Labour leader Pat Rabbitte said that the Taoiseach’s description of himself as a socialist “beggars belief given the performance of the government that he has headed”.
He accused the Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats coalition of ignoring the “people who are at the margins and are the most vulnerable”. He described Mr Ahern’s comments as a “calculated move” after his party’s disappointing performance in the June local and European elections
“It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious but it is very serious,” Mr Rabbitte said.
The study combined a series of quality-of-life measures, from income per capita to church attendance, to rank 111 countries around the globe.
It found that Ireland’s success was because, unlike most other wealthy countries, it had retained strong traditional values.
While it was afflicted by the modern problems of western life, from family breakdown to drink and drug addiction, it was less so than other societies.
Even taking into account the high cost of living, it also found that Ireland’s income per head of population was fourth in the world.
These factors, the study said, offset Ireland’s scores for health, climate, and gender equality, which are below the European average.