Bad Day in the Life of Two Brians
Deaglán de Bréadún
Brian Cowen has two political modes: combative and perfunctory. When in combat mode, he is invincible, smiting the foe to the left and to the right of him. Whether it goes down well on television is a moot point, but he clearly revels in the heat of battle.
He was in perfunctory mode yesterday. The delivery of his speech at the announcement of the list of government cutbacks can only be described as listless and pedestrian. This was not a happy occasion for him and he must wonder when the nightmare is going to end. You wait for years and years to become Taoiseach and then, only two months into the job, you suffer the indignity of defeat in an important EU referendum following which the economy goes pear-shaped.
The Government Press Centre was like “Woodstock for Journalists” yesterday afternoon. Correspondents and specialists of every stripe were in attendance: medical, industrial, political and of course economic. This was a Big Occasion: one is tempted to say historic. The Celtic Tiger has a very nasty thorn in its paw and damned if anyone knows how to extract it without inflicting great pain.
When the two Brians took the stage, the senior one left it to his junior – Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan – to give the detail of the cuts. Lenihan’s delivery was more animated and, unlike his boss, he did not convey a strong sense of wanting to be somewhere else. But it can’t have been a happy day for him either. Maybe Micheál Martin and Dermot Ahern were lucky after all not to get the Finance job.
Parallels are being drawn with the time Charles J. Haughey went on national television on 9 January 1980 to warn the people in grave tones that, “As a community we are away beyond our means … We will have to cut down on government spending.”
But it would be several years before Haughey implemented the programme of economic stringency he promised that night. Cowen and Lenihan, for their part, have outlined a set of measures supposedly intended to restore the economy to its former glory.
Chief among them is a pledge to cut the public service payroll – theoretically excluding Health and Education – by three per cent. There was a paucity of detail as to how this tough-sounding measure would be implemented in practice. The Government had talked the talk, but would it walk the walk? And was this the only way to go about it: what about the wide-boys and speculators who pay minimal tax while most people rest are caught in the PAYE trap?
Government cutbacks after a period of high spending are a familiar scenario: we have been here before and I can still see Ray MacSharry’s hands shaking as he told the Dáil about impending drastic cutbacks in his March 1987 budget speech. But as yesterday’s set-piece drama played itself out, the tom-toms were beating out the story of a worrying ancillary development, namely, the vertigo-inducing fall in Irish bank shares on the stock market. Can we stop the movie now please: it’s getting a little too scary.
#Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times, is author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, recently published in a second edition by Collins Press, Cork (www.collinspress.ie)