Budget reaction woes for the PDs


Workers were promised more money in their pockets in the State's largest-ever give-away Budget last week when Mr Charlie McCreevy provided £517 million in a pay-back bonanza. But the largess has failed to lift the fortunes of the Coalition parties.

Support for Fianna Fail actually diminished by a single point, to 50 per cent, according to the latest Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll, while the Progressive Democrats managed to gain a point to reach a national level of 3 per cent.

But 3 per cent represents disaster where the Progressive Democrats are concerned. The party took 5 per cent in last June's general election and still ended with a horrendous Dail result. A single-point increase from a historically low base was tantamount to a slap in the face from a middle-class electorate which had been cosseted like no other. What had happened?

There was a bounce in the Progressive Democrats step last week when, for the first time in months, they were shown to have had a major input into budget-formation. Tax cuts of the top and bottom rates had been embraced by Mr Bertie Ahern and by Fianna Fail as necessary cement for the Coalition arrangement. And the smaller party felt it was on the way back to centre stage.

The Coalition partners may have suspected trouble when Father Sean Healy, of the Conference of Religious of Ireland, along with the Society of St Vincent de Paul, lambasted the Budget as a rich man's charter which widened the gap between rich and poor. And the Irish Congress of Trade Unions weighed in among the nay-sayers for good measure.

At a time when the Celtic Tiger was roaring as never before, when share prices and corporate earning were projected to rise by 16 and 18 per cent, the disadvantaged and the unemployed were being largely ignored. And the Irish electorate responded - up to a point.

There was no doubt in the public mind that the rich would benefit most from Mr McCreevy's first Budget. Some 74 per cent of those questioned believed high-income earners would do best, with 10 per cent feeling it favoured middle-income earners and 6 per cent plumping for the low-paid.

But those at work, pensioners and social welfare recipients would all benefit to some degree. And, rather than bite the hand that fed them, the electorate chose to look away. After all, 27 per cent of those questioned were satisfied their living standards would rise when the swings and roundabouts were taken into account.

And a further 62 per cent believed they would not be worse off. That made a tidy total of 89 per cent who had nothing to fear from Mr McCreevy's attentions and who might even benefit from them.

Fianna Fail should worry about these results. Not only did the party not benefit from the Budget but the positive impact that should have fed through from the election of Mrs McAleese simply did not materialise. And, on the negative side, the party was seen as not delivering on its pre-election promises to reduce crime rates.

Only in Dublin was the party given some slight recognition for anti-crime measures and, even there, only 28 per cent of those questioned believed crime levels had fallen. At the same time, 62 per cent dismissed the party's efforts as ineffectual.

Elsewhere, the opposition parties had little to boast about. But whatever glimmer of light there was shone on the new Labour Party leader, Mr Ruairi Quinn. Under his control, the party bounced back to a support level of 13 per cent, from the 10 per cent it achieved during the nightmare that was its presidential election campaign.

His personal satisfaction rating moved him into third place, at 57 per cent, behind Mr Ahern and Ms Harney, but ahead of Mr John Bruton and Mr Proinsias De Rossa.

Mr Quinn is very much an unknown quantity with the electorate, according to this poll, and is experiencing what amounts to a mild honeymoon. Even within the Labour Party, people are withholding judgment. Only 6 per cent express dissatisfaction with him, compared to a satisfaction rating of 67 per cent. However, some 27 per cent of those questioned are still lying in the long grass waiting for justifiable cause to make up their minds.

Over in Fine Gael, Mr Bruton is still suffering from his intervention during the presidential election, when he questioned the endorsement of Mrs McAleese by Sinn Fein. At that time, his satisfaction rating suffered a precipitous collapse from 60 to 43 per cent. The latest poll shows a slow recovery to 50 per cent, but there is still nationalist resentment about. And Fine Gael support dipped slightly to 26 per cent.

There is marginally better news for Democratic Left and for Mr De Rossa in terms of party support and satisfaction rating. But the Green Party appears to have lost its way and has dropped back to a support level of 2 per cent, with significant losses in Dublin.

Away from the Budget, the electorate expressed general approval for the way the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats Government is running the country and it received a satisfaction mark of 65 per cent. As a Christmas present, many governments would covet it.