Miriam Lord: Grand day for the garda and nurse who met in Coppers

Budget 2016: Noonan finds Ireland’s ‘lost purse’ and begins spending again

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin  before the budget announcement yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin before the budget announcement yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Ireland: the best small country in the world in which to leak budgets. They don’t do suspense in this Government. No spoiler alerts necessary with Michael Noonan’s and Brendan Howlin’s budget statements yesterday. We already knew what was in them.

It makes one wonder what all the fuss was about.

Twenty years ago, then junior minister Phil Hogan resigned when a handler inadvertently faxed details of the budget to the Evening Herald a few hours before it was due. Big Phil said it was the “honourable” thing to do to avoid damage to the government.

That was before the era of the “democratic revolution” dawned. If that level of propriety were observed today, the entire Cabinet would be enjoying the view from the backbenches before the week is out.

The only suspense now is the wait to see if they’ll tell us something we don’t already know. It’s the only way they can guarantee a full house. Back in 2011, things were so bad Noonan and Howlin presented their budgets over two successive days. The Taoiseach went on national television the night before and addressed the nation, warning of tough measures to come. His Ministers spoke of “a painful period of adjustment” facing the nation.

Last Sunday, Enda Kenny bookended his Government’s term by appearing on The Week in Politics to say things are definitely on the up. (And, more than likely, he won’t be calling a general election until the new year. Although after yesterday’s announcements, some of his troops, notwithstanding the Labour leader’s wishes, looked like they wouldn’t say no to a run out in November.)

He was speaking from the position of a man heading “the fastest growing economy in Europe”, a situation his Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure were at pains to underline. Judging by the smug reaction all around them, it seems the Coalition can also claim credit for the fastest growing heads in Europe.

In the bad old days, when delivering his first budget, Noonan lamented the fact Ireland had lost “her purse”. Or to be more precise, Fianna Fáil had given it away. The following year, the Government warned there was no point in even thinking about retrieving the purse, because they had to sell the handbag, too.

Not a bob

Matters improved in 2013. The Minister for Finance proudly announced he would soon be in a position to return the purse. What he omitted to say was there wasn’t a bob in it. Last year, he was confident it would be back dispensing soon. And yesterday, five budgets in, he produced Ireland’s mythical purse and began spending again.

Noonan and Howlin promised as much in their penultimate statements, when they teed-up their final double-hander for yesterday’s big reveal. Then, they dangled their “minor easements” as a promise of things to come. After lunch yesterday, they loosened their stays and allowed for some major expansion.

They looked relaxed at the traditional prebudget photocall on the steps of Government Buildings, gurgling and giggling at each other as they held up their bound volumes of this year’s leaks for the cameras.

Back in Leinster House, opposition TDs were pondering how they should react to this first nonausterity budget, with its promise of lots of little sweeteners to soften up a pre-election audience. One Independent deputy was reportedly in quite a quandary in the Members’ Bar, wailing to colleagues: “I might have to welcome this one!”

As the afternoon progressed, and Noonan gave way to Howlin, it soon became clear a lot of the measures seemed to bear the imprint of the Labour Party, there to assuage the party which suffered disproportionately more damage than its senior coalition during the lean years. There was plenty to attract their traditional public-service base, not least the promise that a garda and a nurse with two children could expect to get an extra €197 a month. A nice boost for the “Coppers Couple”, as one backbench TD called them, imagining a typical fella and girl who met in Copper Face Jacks and got married.

Was it mere coincidence there was a mass outbreak of red in the Labour ranks, almost as if a directive came down telling them to proudly wear the colour again? Joan Burton led the way with her crimson coat, Brendan Howlin followed suit with his defiantly scarlet tie. Their deputies gave the impression they were beginning to think it might be safe to go out alone in public again.

“We may get the posters out,” roared Finian McGrath at the end of Noonan’s speech. The Coalition may protest to the contrary, but this was an out and out election budget. Just as they had planned from the start. That view was reinforced by the time Brendan Howlin sat down. “Go to the country!” shouted Noel Grealish. “Pat Rabbitte might come back too.”

It’s been a while since we witnessed such a genuine outbreak of smug on the Government benches at budget time. Michael Noonan’s delivery sounded more suited to the darker days of economic depression. At one point, we counted three people asleep in the public gallery. A measure of how devalued Budget Day has become was the number of empty seats in that gallery.

And down in the bar, where all the stools used to be removed to accommodate the heaving hordes of hangers-on, the furniture stayed in position. Although the appearance of actor Chris O’Dowd later in the evening (with Fine Gael’s Frankie Feighan) caused quite a stir.

Of course, last year, the big crowd gave a false impression of public interest in this annual event. Two new TDs took their seats on the same day – Micheal Fitzmaurice and Paul Murphy – bringing a big number of supporters in to celebrate their big day. Imagine, the pair of them only a year in the place.

Love letter

Government backbenchers were remarkably restrained for the first page of the Noonan/Howlin love letter. The Minister for Finance’s downbeat delivery helped, and they were probably still remembered those earlier years when unbridled yahooing was out of the question. But you could see them growing in confidence as the good news flowed. They murmured appreciatively at the changes in the USC and cheered the huge reduction in commercial motor tax – because it was something everyone could understand. And while he didn’t promise to put a chicken in every pot, the prospect of “a full extra week’s wages for all workers” went down very well.

They clammed up when Noonan declared Ireland “will be the first OECD-compliant KDB [knowledge development box] in the world”. But then, they wanted to hear what little comforts were heading the way of their constituents and draw attention away from the tasty gravy flowing into the coffers of the corporate multinationals. Apparently, it’s good news for the “intangible asset regime” too.

As the goodies kept coming, some of the older hands on the Government benches smiled to themselves. They love it when a plan comes together.

When Noonan finally subsided, to restrained applause, Howlin rose to his feet and gave it some welly. “It’s hard to imagine the distance we’ve travelled since 2011,” he quivered.

Not really. Some people are still stuck in the same position. The Opposition tried to tell him so. “Sit down and take your medicine,” roared a Government backbencher as Howlin explained the increase in the minimum wage to cheers.

Across the floor, they tried to heckle, but not very loudly and not very effectively. “We did better in the worst of times than our predecessor did in the best of times,” carolled Howlin, channelling his inner Dickens. (Although Dickens wasn’t really the vibe the Minister was after, unless he was thinking of Tiny Tim on Christmas morning after Scrooge had seen the light of budgets past.)

Male and middle-aged

There was laughter from the overwhelmingly male and middle-aged ranks on all sides of the house when he introduced two weeks’ paternity leave. A sort of giddiness took over. He talked of “a shared prosperity” and €3 extra for the pensioners, along with an increased Christmas bonus. Joan and Enda smiled at each other.

As he neared the end, the opposition turned up the volume. But Howlin had a lot to say in conclusion. “There’s more! There’s more!” whooped the Government backbenchers, pointing to the last page. At which point, Enda underlined something in the script, showed it to Joan and they laughed.

Howlin, clearly targeting Sinn Féin, asked: “Who speaks of Syriza now?”

That nearly finished the Coalition lads altogether. But Renua’s Billy Timmins was quick of the mark. “What now of Eamon Gilmore?” It shut them up, briefly.

Then Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath had the unenviable task of replying. But not before Ruairí Quinn had a chance to appeal to the chair: “A Ceann Comhairle, can we have a recess so the Fianna Fáil opposition spokesman can rewrite his speech?”

There must be an election on the way.