Miriam Lord: Budget 2018, with Paschal Done-with-No-Hue-and-Very-Little-Cry

The only surprise? That people were surprised there was no surprise

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, outlines changes in USC and tax bands rates in his Budget 2018 speech. Video: Oireachtas

 

No fireworks, promised the Taoiseach. He was right. No need to wait for the smoke to clear after the Minister’s speech, because it barely managed a few sparks. This was not a big-bang budget. It was a keep-your-powder-dry budget, and it was carefully and colourlessly outlined to an increasingly drowsy Dáil by the Minister for Finance, Paschal Done-with-No-Hue-and-Very-Little-Cry.

If there was any surprise at all it was that people were surprised there was no surprise. But everyone expects at least one on budget day, even if most of the detail has already been leaked well in advance. It’s what ministers for finance are supposed to do in October. It’s like the ring in your barmbrack or the coin in your colcannon.

Except that Donohoe was remarkably quiet in the run-up. The kites that start flying from government circles weeks in advance of the annual financial statement didn’t get going this year. Those legendary “backchannels” between Ministers, mandarins and media weren’t really operating. There were slim pickings for the pol corrs and the pundits.

Then suddenly, in the final couple of days, the floodgates opened, and everything that had once been a secret was spewed across the airwaves and popular prints. Absolutely everything. Nothing was held in reserve, which made for a very dull speech.

It’s no wonder the Fine Gael backbenchers almost forgot to applaud after Minister Done-with-No-Hue-and-Very-Little-Cry finally resumed his seat after speaking for what seemed like a week. Then again, Paschal was speaking for two.

Last year both the minister for finance (Michael Noonan) and the minister for public expenditure and reform (Paschal) made speeches. This time Double Departments Donohoe had the floor to himself.

Photo-op splurge

Away from the soporific atmosphere in the chamber it was all go. So perhaps the Minister was tired following his prebudget video and photo-opportunity splurge.

On Monday night he released an online film with the broad outline of his budget; then, from the crack of dawn on Tuesday, his every move was captured by staffers who then posted the results on social media. We saw Paschal standing in front of a window, apparently rehearsing his speech; walking up and down corridors; sometimes walking and talking at the same time, with plinky elevator music in the background.

He must have been glad of the chance to go into the Dáil to unveil his budget again, this time officially, and escape the cameras for a while.

Immediately after his stint in the chamber the Minister went off to talk to various radio stations and have his photograph taken in front of various microphones. And in between he was on the evening television news.

Pause for thought: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Lolly & Cooks coffee shop on Merrion Street. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Pause for thought: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Lolly & Cooks coffee shop on Merrion Street. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

A good day’s work for the Government’s new strategic communications unit. And it’ll have to work even harder to help Leo Varadkar explain the contradiction that the unit he has been insisting would operate on a “cost neutral” basis was given a handsome €5 million in the budget. Perhaps Paschal didn’t tell him.

It was a happy day on a personal level for the Minister for Finance, with his mother, Cáit, wife, Justine, and two children, Oscar and Lucy, watching from the distinguished-visitors’ gallery. Also looking on, from four rows behind, was Michael Noonan. Enda Kenny wasn’t present.

Leo Varadkar seemed delighted for his friend on his big occasion, welcoming Paschal when he arrived in the chamber and then making a point of greeting his family. Then he led his Minister down the steps, moving aside so Paschal could occupy what is normally the Taoiseach’s chair.

My First Budget

There is something endearing about Paschal, despite reports from Finance of a very steely personality behind the genuine bonhomie. When he posed (yet again) for the traditional prebudget photographs it came as a bit of a disappointment to see he was carrying a bog-standard leather folder. We’d half-expected to see “My First Budget” emblazoned across the front in big colourful letters.

The afternoon began with the traditional budget gag from the Ceann Comhairle. The one where he pretends to be very serious and reminds TDs that on no account are they to reveal any details in the top-secret document they are about to receive until the Minister has spoken. Because it is all “confidential”. Seán Ó Fearghaíl got the biggest laugh of the day for that.

The Independent TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace arrived a little late. Mick looked a bit dishevelled, as one might expect of a man who was in Wales the night before for Ireland’s marvellous win in the soccer. He wore ripped and frayed denims, his knee poking out of a hole in one of the legs.

Leo Varadkar popped a sweet in his mouth before Paschal started talking. He spoke for an hour, or the time it takes to wear down an everlasting gobstopper. When he finally finished Leo appeared to collapse and slide to the ground. But he was only reaching down to a power socket for his mobile phone, so he could start scrolling and texting again.

Paschal introduced some great new initialisms. At Finance they never have enough. There was the MTO, or medium-term objective, which is to do with the economy, as opposed to the STO, or short-term objective, which is to do with winning the next election. This was followed by the HBFI, or Home Building Finance Ireland. Pronounced, according to Paschal, Hib-fi. It’s to finance house-building projects. All around the country delighted builders burst into happy choruses of The Hibfi Hibfi Shake.

The most contrived effort (the new spin unit must have had an input) is the new key-employee engagement programme, or Keep. Maybe annoying acronyms can be dumped into the National Mitigation Plan, which has something to do with climate change. Who knew?

Raining maps and cogs

Along with the videos and photographs in the interest of transparency and saying nothing, the new sharing government showered us with documents in a fat folder, each subdocument featuring this year’s budget cover design of Ireland made from little cogs. There was so much printed material it was raining maps and cogs.

The former senator Fidelma Healy Eames was above in the front row of the public gallery, taking lots of notes. Senator Catherine Noone was sitting at the rail above the TDs, where Senators sit. She punched the air when Paschal announced he was increasing the VAT on sunbeds. As this has been her pet project it was a tantaxtic result for her. But there was a glum thumbs down from the avid smoker Finian McGrath when the ciggies went up in price again.

At the end of his first budget Fine Gael TDs applauded Paschal politely. In the gallery his young daughter, Lucy, clapped with gusto. Or perhaps it was relief. It was a long hour.

But a strong, confident and competent performance from Paschal Done-with-No-Hue-and-Very-Little-Cry.

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