THE BUDGET SPEECH
The Budget speech is one of the great set pieces in the political calendar. It’s the day when the Taoiseach cedes the bottom right hand corner seat of the Chamber to the Minister for Finance. It’s also the only day of a non-election year when every seat in the chamber, the press gallery, and the public gallery is occupied.
Speeches can be long and can be short; can be full of rhetoric and guff; or consice and pointed. The late Brian Lenihan’s first speech had ‘call to patriotism’ flourishes in the final paragraphs. His Budget last year was one of the shortest delivered on Budget day in recent politcal history – practical and to the point.
For the Minister and for those marking him on the Opposition benches, this is the most important speech they will make during the course of the year, especially now, with the economy in dire straits.
Today will be Michael Noonan’s maiden speech as Minister for Finance.
That seems almost peculiar to write because there is nobody in the Dail chamber more familiar with Budget speeches than he.
In opposition, he himself delivered ten Budget day speeches over a decade and a half as Fine Gael’s finance spokesman. Of course, no other politician in Irish politics can match Noonan in terms of wit, perception, timing, and delivery.
It will be intriguing to see how he will do in his first formal speech as Minister, whether he will stick to the facts, leave it to the civil servants, or include some of his own rhetorical fare.
It will be a maiden speech as finance spokesman too for Michael McGrath. The Fianna Fail finance spokesman, an accountant by training, is the risiing star of the party. He is smart, understated and perhaps a bit underwhelming in presentation. But he certainly knows his stuff and is probably the archetypal, serious and straight-laced politicain Fianna Fail is looking for in the future.
His public expenditure colleague Sean Fleming gave a Seve Ballesteros type speech yesterday. He found the rough as often as he found the fairways, especially during the opening 20 mintues, but at the end of the speech he showed that he was no slouch when it came to the short game. He got under the Coalition’s skin by reminding them of all the incrreases in expenses and allowances they had paid their own office staff (or cronies as he put it) while cutting disability payment. He also adroitly threw a line back at Michael Noonan, that Noonan had used last year when attacking the then government’s cuts of benefits to the third child. “What have you got against the third child?”. It provoked a Cheshire like grin from an amused Noonan.
Yesterday’s performer for Sinn Fein was Mary Lou McDonald, who speaks on public expenditure. Wow, she is focused. I’m not using this metaphor because of Sinn Fein’s past connections but it helps. When she turns and directs her attack at an opponent, you can almost see the red dot of the tracer appear on her target as she begins to snipe. She is a really effective and merciless performer. She was very good yesterday save for one passage in her obviously pre-cooked speech. She argued the Government should have charged for private hospital beds and lowered the price of generic medicines. In fact, it had done both. It allowed the Labour Party chorus line to bray loudly at her.
Today it’s Pearse Doherty. If McDonald was a sniper last year, Doherty was a cluster bomb. He was taking no prisoners as he roared and shouted at the Government benches. People tired of feigned anger after a while and Doherty has toned it down. He is another sharp operator and there no softly-softly to his method. But he is by far and away the most competent and able finance spokesman Sinn Fein has had in its 15 years in the Dail. It’s a pity that the sums in the party’s alternative budget are pie in the sky and don’t add up. It’s going to have to come up with a more all-encompassing policy than the politically opportune and narrow ‘tax the rich’ strategy… that’s if its policies are to be accepted as credible.
There are a few in the technical group who are strong in this area. And the big test of their mettle will be their speeches today. On the right of centre, Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly are confident and knowledgeable – the latter is an original thinker and has crafted a few very good speeches in the past few weeks.
On the left there is Joe Higgins, whose analysis is unvarying but whose wit can be peerless; the impressive Thomas Pringle; Richard Boyd Barrett; and the understated Catherine Murphy among others.
It is one day in the year when the prose in the Dail can reach standards that are more than prosaic.
Below are a few extracts from some of Noonan’s best moments when in opposition:
He is like the man who jumped up on his horse and rode off in all directions at once. He has missed most targets here. It is a budget of lost opportunities and it is certainly a budget of lost jobs.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): Níorbh é a locht a laghad ar aon nós. Budget day, traditionally, is a day of drama in this House. We have photo calls, the Minister is photographed with his battered brief case arriving at the House and various gurus make predictions on what might be in the budget. Today that sense of drama is heightened given that this is the first Budget Statement to go out live on television. I am delighted that all the Fianna Fáil backbenchers have put on their new suits and are looking so well. Indeed, they will look extremely well on television.
Mr. Noonan: (Limerick East): I am afraid that this is a phoney drama. The drama is more apparent than real because there is nothing in the budget that we did not know already. There was a time when the Minister for Finance came into the House on budget day and announced fundamental policy changes which affected the future of the country and when the admonitions of the Ceann Comhairle on budgetary secrecy meant something but the Minister came into the House today with a budget the details of which were widely known for the last week and not simply because of the leaks on the budget. In terms of leaks, this must be the wettest Government ever.
Maybe even a new car but a banger certainly, it is up on blocks, back firing, belching smoke, the Minister for Finance is under the bonnet fine tuning it with a hammer, the Taoiseach is in the driving seat revving away, shouting instructions in all directions, doors and windows tightly shut because he is not that interested in where the car is going any more, his one interest is in assuming that nobody else climbs into the driving seat.
Budget 2000 December 1st 1999
“I know that we are supposed to be impressed on this side of the House, but I feel a bit like Mark Twain when he visited Niagara Falls. When he saw that great flow of water going over the falls he was silent. His companion asked him if he was impressed and he said: “Yes, I’m impressed all right, but I’d be more impressed if it flowed up the other way”. This is the most socially divisive budget I have seen presented to the House.”
“It is a major departure from what I understood to be the principles on which Fianna Fáil was founded and those frequently expressed by its founding father, Éamon de Valrea.