FF held to ransom by Independents who could force a General Election
LAST-MINUTE TALKS: Lenihan meets rebel TDs over deal on the vital Finance Bill in the Dail today
THREE independent TDs were today holding Fianna Fail to ransom by threatening to spark a General Election.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was still engaged in tense negotiations with the rural politicians ahead of a key vote on the Finance Bill this afternoon.
Michael Lowry, Jackie Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath warned the Government that they would bring the 30th Dail to a crashing halt unless their demands were met.
"If we don't vote for it, it's gone. The Taoiseach will be heading for the Park," said Mr Lowry.
Mr McGrath claimed the Bill was being "rushed through with indecent haste".
"It's a very, very serious document," he said.
The former Fianna Fail TD, who is contesting the election as an independent, added: "I haven't got the engagement I wanted to get."
Speaking before emergency talks with the Government chief whip and finance minister, Mr McGrath said: "I'm not saying I'm an independent holding anybody to ransom.
"He didn't have any problem cutting the minimum wage and with a stroke of a pen it was brought in."
He added that the Opposition parties "want the Bill passed because it'll be out of the way for themselves and they can blame the current Government".
Having already been granted a series of local concessions as part of last December's Budget the TDs today laid the Finance Bill on the line with a fresh list of demands.
Emergency talks were under way at the Department of Finance this morning before the first Dail vote on the Bill.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Mr Lenihan were reduced to personally pleading with Mr Lowry who has been given permission by Mr Healy-Rae to negotiate on his behalf.
The Government can depend on the support of 72 Fianna Fail TDs, six Greens and two Independents bring their vote to 80.
Including all the main opposition parties and four Independents there are also 80 TDs set to go against the bill, meaning Mr Lowry and Mr Healy-Rae hold the balance of power.
Before today's meetings Mr Lowry said that he was "minded" to vote against the bill unless changes were mad.
Mr Lenihan has already backtracked on the rate of Universal Social Charge (USC) taxed on medical card holders.
But he is hesitant to concede on four other issues:
- The exemption of 120,000 retired public servants from the USC.
- A reversal of the decision to bring forward the payment date of preliminary tax by self-employed people by a month to September 30.
- A reversal of the decision not to allow tax relief on the first €2,000 of fees for full-time third level students.
- Re-introducing the 90pc tax on bankers' bonuses.
The tax on bonuses was only announced after the Budget but Mr Lenihan has now claimed that there isn't enough time to draw up the legislation by the end of the week.
The debate on the Finance Bill was continuing in the Dail this morning with a key vote due early in the afternoon.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said that it had to be passed before an election in order "to maintain our international reputation".
Green Party leader John Gormley appealed to Fine Gael and Labour to drop their opposition to the Finance Bill and allow it to pass by abstaining.
"They should act responsible in the national interest," he said. If the Finance Bill were to collapse it could result in a General Election sooner than the predicted date of February 25.