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22 July 2004 Edition

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Coalition lurches leftwards as McCreevy is ditched

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

In what Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin described as a coalition "game of musical chairs", Charlie McCreevy's 27 years as a TD, covering three Ministries, Social Welfare, Tourism and Trade and most importantly, since 1997, Finance, are to end.

For more than 12 years he was the battering ram against the welfare state, public ownership of resources, the rights of workers, regulation of the economy and any other slightly progressive policies you care to mention.

Charlie McCreevy's nomination as 26-County EU Commissioner is a master stroke by Bertie Ahern. It is clear that the Fianna Fáil leader is gearing up for a serious change of strategy and presentation of the coalition government as it seeks a third term in office, despite recent poll and media battering.

With a Leinster House election at least one year away, Ahern is taking what for him is decisive action in ditching one of his mostly effective weapons in public communication. The 'bad cop' McCreevy, for so long the perfect foil to Ahern's 'man of the common people' persona, is, it seems, no longer needed.

By sending the outspoken McCreevy to Europe, Ahern can draw a line under the uncaring hard-nosed policies of the past and use the next 18 to 24 months for some selective public spending announcements as the new Finance Minister spreads a bit of cash around.

The theory is that by giving back some of the money taken through VAT and other stealth tax increases from the PAYE worker in recent years, we will all feel grateful and do the dutiful come election day. After all, it was such a strategy that re-elected Fianna Fáil in 2002.

Charlie McCreevy originally sprang to media notice in the early 1980s by his public opposition to Charlie Haughey's leadership of Fianna Fáil. Haughey held on and, as leadership succession of Fianna Fáil went to loyal henchman Reynolds and Ahern, it seemed likely that in the early 1990s, there would be no further advancement for McCreevy.

However, in his first cabinet as leader, Reynolds brought McCreevy into Social Welfare. McCreevy quickly became the most public feature of the Reynolds cabinet. At a time of record unemployment, McCreevy introduced a series of social welfare cuts, 12 in all, becoming known as the "Dirty Dozen".

The most interesting feature of how McCreevy acted was that many of these policy shifts were done by Ministerial order and with no Leinster House debate. This was the hallmark of McCreevy in his ministries, day-to-day decisions that bypassed any democratic institution and in many cases seemed to be more about satisfying the whims of the business community than with governing in the public interest.

Reynolds moved McCreevy to Tourism and Trade in the first year of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition and it seemed this was the height of his political progress, in the cabinet still but no senior post.

When Bertie Ahern became leader in 1994, and with Fianna Fáil temporarily in the pits, enduring one of their brief periods in opposition, McCreevy was named Finance spokesperson. It seemed a stopgap decision as Ahern, not one to allow anyone hold even a chance of being a serious leadership contender, didn't put any of the Fianna Fáil leading stars such as Martin, O'Rourke or Cowen in this top post. When McCreevy got the top job as Minister in 1997, it was clear that Ahern was signalling his intention to dig in for the long term.

So the legacy of McCreevy is, as Caoimhgin Ó Caoláin rightly pointed out, one where the policies he has implemented over the past seven years "have widened the gap between the wealthy and the deprived in our society".

McCreevy slashed business taxes, kept open numerous tax loopholes and avoidance schemes, while at the same leaving minimum wage workers still paying more tax proportionately than some of the state's highest earners. He leaves office with more PAYE workers on the higher rate of income tax than ever before.

What we will remember most was his aloof belittling of anyone who even mildly criticised his Ministerial decisions. It seems that though McCreevy, like many before him, has been ditched in the expediency of keeping Fianna Fáil in power, he will fit in well in the EU Commission, which treasures the right to autocracy and bypassing elected parliaments. One wonders how the McCreevy quip will translate on this new stage.

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