The 26 County general election campaign has begun with a major embarrassment for the coalition parties after their annual spending plans were found to have overestimated available state funds by several billion euro.
At the party’s annual conference, Finance Minister Michael Noonan claimed that twelve billion euro is available to spend each year between now and 2021 as ‘fiscal space’. The error was repeated by Labour’s Brendan Howlin at his party’s conference after he liberally misinterpreted the Department of Finance figures in the same way.
Fianna Fail were also caught out, and it subsequently emerged that only Sinn Fein was working with the correct number of 8.6 billion euro, as confirmed by the chief economist in the Department of Finance, John McCarthy.
After it was forced into an embarrassing u-turn, Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald accused Noonan and the government of the “fastest fiscal flip flop in history”.
Fine Gael, which bookmakers believe is most likely to lead the next government, have had a disastrous start to the campaign. Not only has their competency in managing the country’s finances been undermined, but Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been forced to counter accusations of hiding from the media.
Opposition politicians accused Kenny and Fine Gael of acting “like the government in North Korea” by strictly limiting the questions allowed to be put to the Taoiseach at his first press conference of the election campaign to just two.
Even with that, Kenny floundered on financial details. When asked how his party would fund their election promises, the Taoiseach said he didn’t want to use “economic jargon which the vast majority of Irish people don’t understand”.
Fianna Fail described the assertion as “patronising and condescending”.
The Taoiseach was later forced to deny he was in hiding, and claimed not to be aware of an invitation to appear on the main evening news.
Michael McGrath, the Fianna Fail party finance spokesman accused Kenny of “ducking and diving” and of sending Health Minister Leo Varadkar out to do his “dirty work”.
“This isn’t North Korea, this is a democratic State and you as members of the media are entitled to put as many questions as you want as far as I’m concerned to all of the political leaders going before the country in this election,” he told reporters at a press event in Dublin.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams claimed the Taoiseach “thinks the Irish people are stuped”.
At the launch of his party’s election campaign at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, Mr Adams said Sinn Fein is “committed to seeking a mandate to be in government”.
The party is running 50 candidates across the 40 Dail constituencies in the general election. Sinn Fein candidates have signed up to the Right2Charter charter of principles, which includes the signatures of a total of 96 election candidates.
He did not rule out any other party from coalition talks, if it is not possible to form a government with Right2Change candidates.
However, Sinn Fein has already said it will only go into government if it is the largest party, while other parties like Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have already ruled Adams’s party out.
The Louth TD also took aim at the other three main parties over their miscalculation of the ‘fiscal space’.
“They’ve been caught out cooking the books. Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail should withdraw their manifestos, they’re based on a lie,” Adams said.
Sinn Fein’s finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said that the three other parties manifestos should be withdrawn and “shredded”.
He said the majority of the fiscal space would be used to invest in public services.
Adams said Sinn Fein will secure a recovery that is “fair and equitable” by scrapping water charges and property tax, taking nearly 300,000 low-paid workers out of Universal Social Charge and introducing universal healthcare for all.
He said the parties policies are “prudent, responsible and costed” and will be outlined in detail when the Sinn Fein manifesto is published next week.