By Cillian Sherlock, PA
One of the three Fine Gael junior ministers who wrote a newspaper op-ed that caused tensions within the coalition government has said 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, next year that could be up to €16 billion,” he said.
Fine Gael, along with the Green Party, will be involved in negotiations with Fianna Fáil in the run up to this year’s budget.
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.