Budget of bits and bobs fails to outrage or astound
Miriam Lord: Taoiseach seemed to drift off as his Ministers kept droning on
If the devil is in the detail then his name is Bob and his bits are all over the place.
Last Saturday the Government still had not reached agreement on Budget 2014. The Cabinet was, said Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, finalising the “bits and bobs”.
Otherwise known as the fisticuffs stage.
The Cabinet was still in session at lunchtime yesterday, right up to the time Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin came out on to the steps of Government Buildings for the pre-budget photocall. Unlike a number of their ministerial colleagues they didn’t get stuck in the lift for 20 minutes after the meeting. Eamon Gilmore, Leo Varadkar, Big Phil Hogan, Alan Shatter, Jan O’Sullivan and chief whip Paul Kehoe had to be rescued by the military. “It was great crack,” croaked one of them afterwards.
At the same time, down the road in the Department of Finance, a group of senior officials was also stuck in a lift. Not an auspicious start for a Government keen to stress it was motoring well down “the recovery path”.
But back to the bits-and-bobs budget.
“The public will be astounded at all the good news,” Noonan said at the weekend. At 2.30 yesterday afternoon, while the public sat back and waited to be astounded, the Opposition sat up and waited to be outraged. What they got was not astounding and the level of public outrage remains to be seen.
Noonan and then Howlin began by lambasting Fianna Fáil for the shambles they made of the economy and finished with choruses of self-congratulation. No surprise there.
Howlin just stopped short of blaming the Famine on Fianna Fáil. In between awarding himself gold stars he liberally sprinkled about public spending cuts. But he was happy to repeat what he said last year about Ireland emerging from its economic mess: “Today I am more than confident. I am certain.”
No change there.
Noonan’s speech was more low-key but he concluded with the upbeat declaration the country will be free of the EU-IMF troika by the start of next year. “We will have exited the programme and Ireland will have been handed back her purse.”
The backbenchers cheered.
It’s always nice to get your purse back when its been swiped, although all the cards and cash are usually missing. They gave a little and they took more.
Enda reached across and patted Michael on the shoulder when he finished. Interestingly, a number of Labour TDs sat on their hands after both speeches. On both sides of the chamber, deputies hunted the banana skins – the bits and bobs that escape scrutiny when the budget is framed and end up causing public consternation.
Enda, meanwhile, was having difficulty keeping his eyes open. More than once he seemed to drift off as his Ministers droned on.
Michael McGrath was the man with the most difficult job in the Dáil yesterday. He was first up to reply and he wasn’t happy. On the cusp of recovery? “It’s too early to draw on any definitive conclusion,” he sniffed.
The contents of Budget 2014 had been comprehensively leaked to the media in the final run-up, so he had enough ammunition to work up a nice head of steam.
The Opposition’s main line of attack became immediately clear – it was the cuts to pensioners’ medical cards and telephone allowance. Fianna Fáil, in particular, know from recent experience that it’s a brave government that messes with the pensioners.
As soon as Noonan and Howlin had spoken, the Government benches cleared. By the time Seán Fleming took up the baton from McGrath, the front bench was deserted, save for the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. The Ministers had gone to do interviews.
“The media is more important than the national parliament,” huffed Seán. But he had a point. The deserted benches opposite him were the height of disrespect.
Sinn Féin further exploited what looked to be the weak seam among the bits and bobs of the budget – the pensioners. Not only were they taking their phones, fulminated Pearse Doherty, but they were making sure they couldn’t ring up to complain.
In the corridors, Government backbenchers felt there was enough give and take in the budget for them to sell it. The banana skin, they reckoned, might be in the removal of the telephone allowance for pensioners who depend on landlines for their personal alarms. But overall there was none of the hysteria that had accompanied recent budgets.
And on Kildare Street, where hordes of gardaí cooled their heels and waited for trouble, a mere handful of protesters astounded them with their outrage and gave them a easy day.