From Celtic Tiger to Hibernian Hangover
Deaglán de Bréadún
Can we call this the Madonna Budget? I’m thinking of the scene in the film version of Evita where she sings, “Screw the middle classes! I will never accept them.” Everyone expected there would be pain but the main criticism at this stage seems to be that it is disproportionately targetted at the middle layers of society, what John Bruton once got heavily slated for categorising as “the coping classes”.
We had the Celtic Tiger, now we have the Hibernian Hangover. As can sometimes happens after nights of excess, there was a lot of recrimination. One thing Fianna Fáil-led governments are good at is frightening the living daylights out of us, in advance of Budget Day. By the end, people are in such a state that any lessening of the blow or act of mercy, however small, is seized upon with a pathetic display of gratitude.
This year, with the economic storm howling all around our little island, FF didn’t even have to try to get us into a state of fear and trembling. But one’s initial impression is that there was less effort than usual made to temper the wind to the shorn lamb — FF could of course argue circumstances were tougher than normal.
Several measures were leaked in advance and the last snippet to emerge, prior to the Budget speech, was the proposed amalgamation of the censorship of publications board and what used to be known as the film censor’s office. These operate under the aegis of the Department of Justice and it was hard to know how the authorities could expect to save a whole pile of money through such a move. But every little helps, presumably.
Predictions that the proposed amalgamation of human rights and equality agencies was off the agenda turned out to be accurate. This merger was proposed during the summer by the Department and precipitated a very well-organised campaign to prevent any such move. There are now up to 60 civil society groups in the Equality & Rights Alliance apparently.
The fate of Metro North, the rail link from St Stephen’s Green to Swords via Dublin Airport was the subject of contradictory rumours: the Budget was fairly cryptic on this score (there are still funds available for “planning and enabling works on Metro North”) and questions still remain. On the one hand, this is a high-cost project but, on the other, it is a source of employment and an important piece of infrastructure.
There was talk in advance of an income levy but it was a nasty surprise for the lower-paid that this reached down even to them, “right across all income” as the Taoiseach said on the nine o’clock news.
The means-testing of medical cards for the over-70s was a harsh measure and will raise a lot of hackles. In the educational sphere, college registration fees will be going up and there is also the prospect of tuition fees coming back in the fairly near future. “We are in unprecedented times,” says Brian Cowen but will the punters see it in such an objective light?
The demise of the PDs means the middle-class don’t have a political party that could perhaps be described as a niche organisation representing their interests. One wonders if another party that appeals almost exclusively to that layer will manifest itself. There has been speculation that Libertas might morph into a right-of-centre political organisation which would have a wider remit than just the European issue, but with the relentless focus on issues of financing for the Lisbon campaign and the departure of some key Libertas figures for other pastures, this now seems doubtful.
Some have remarked on the similarities in the recent careers of Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen (I almost wrote “Gordon Cowen” and “Brian Brown”). Both have gone from a sagging political position to one of renewed strength and popularity. One encountered a fair degree of creeping disillusionment with Cowen over the summer, but two acts of his have shown that – for good or ill – the guy is at least decisive. He brought forward the Budget by six weeks and when banks were reportedly going down the toilet, he moved swifty with Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to introduce the Government guarantee.
The toughness of the Budget may affect Cowen’s poll ratings however. As Pat Rabbitte put it, “Everything that moves is taxed.” His party leader said: “The people who will suffer most as a result of this budget are typically the nurse, the teacher, the office manager, the skilled tradesman, the small builder . . . “ If certain commentators are correct and we are seeing a swing to the left of centre in world politics, Labour will garner support if it manages to harness the reaction to this budget. Of course with opposition representatives there is always a certain suspicion that, if in government themselves, they would feel obliged to be equally harsh and that it’s the Permanent Government of the civil service that’s really calling the shots in this country.
Meanwhile, events outside the Government’s sphere of influence will determine the fate of us all. Despite all the Budget hype, our future really depends on what happens in stock exchanges and in the minds of investors many miles from Leinster House.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times