Miriam Lord: Coalition all a-buzz as it launches its big recovery package

‘Unprecedented’ financial giveaway will help economy ‘take off like a rocket’, says Tánaiste

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

 

No fireworks at the launch of the Government’s Wellbeing Framework and Big Stimulus Roadmap Package for Economic Recovery, but Leo Varadkar predicted it will “take off like a rocket” in no time.

It will “kick-start” the recovery and “propel the economy forward”, promised Micheál Martin. The reawakening will be “rapid”, added Leo.

Exciting stuff. Front-loaded all the way.

“The economy is going to go gangbusters!” trilled Eamon Ryan. He didn’t say that.

“I’ve been told by my friends who’ve been on the Camino that the Spanish have a poem...” began the Green Party leader, wrecking the high-octane buzz conjured up by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. He furnished them with a nice quote: “If you want to go on a path, well, you start by taking a few steps.”

But the other two are determined to take a good run at it.

This roadmap is every bit as “unprecedented” as recent unprecedented pathway package plans, and even more unprecedented than last year’s budget, which contained such an unprecedented financial splurge that the Opposition, in an unprecedented move, had to pretend it never happened.

But there were high hopes for Tuesday’s launch. Before the announcement it was touted in some quarters as a budget day equivalent, only on the first day of summer.

Sharpened

Opposition knives were being sharpened. This Economic Recovery Plan would give spokespeople a second chance to trot out the lines they usually get to say in November, but couldn’t last year.

“Too little, too late.”

“A missed opportunity.”

“A government bereft of ideas.”

The three Coalition leaders jointly unveiled their Framework for Economic Convalescence and Stimulus Injection Pathway at an event in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. The location was specially chosen in an effort to show people that it is possible to gather outside in the city centre without getting drunk and peeing in a doorway.

There will be new trains for Cork and the Greens are going to be retrofitting the bejasus out of everything

This also gave the Taoiseach an opportunity to bandy about the big on-trend political slogan of the post-pandemic era: “Build Back Better.” Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are among world leaders using the alliterative phrase to describe their governments’ economic recovery plans.

Micheál was also able to show it off again a short time later in the Dáil, where the Opposition was expected to give his multibillion-euro reactivation programme a right roasting.

But there was more than a touch of Budget 2021 during his stint in the Convention Centre. In contrast to the sustained onslaught on Government in recent weeks over its handling of the housing crisis, reaction to its recovery plan was muted. The passion, anger and conviction of the last few weeks was absent.

Mary Lou McDonald gave it her best shot. She honed in on the Government’s intention to start phasing out the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) in September, winding it up completely next February. “Premature and deeply unfair,” she thundered, accusing the Taoiseach of pulling the rug out from under the feet of struggling workers.

Locked out

While it is “really very good news” to see tens of thousands of people going back to their jobs as the restrictions lift, some will still be locked out of work due to public health restrictions when the first PUP cuts happen.

But the Sinn Féin leader had little else to go on. This was one of those rare occasions when the Ceann Comhairle didn’t have to remind her to stop speaking because her time was up.

The Taoiseach agreed on the very good news about the rising numbers returning to work and it would have been remiss of him not to mention his Government’s “very successful and very efficiently-run vaccination programme” which is now enabling this return to economic growth and recovery.

Which led him on naturally to his latest plan, which is “a continuation of that economic recovery story”.

He reeled off the details.

Delighted to give her the full Bobby – the entire story.

Not only are they investing in “human capital” but there will be new trains for Cork and the Greens are going to be retrofitting the bejasus out of everything. They will be upskilling and reskilling and there will be “new orientations”.

Central to everything will be the “unprecedented work-reactivation programme”.

And then there’s the new facility in Beggar’s Bush in Dublin, “the new Government department that’s a pathway finder building which will be state of the art in terms of emissions reductions and so on.”

Whatever that means, but nobody is going to object to reduced emissions from a Government department. “Imaginative,” marvelled Micheál.

The objective is to have to 2.5 million people in work by the year 2024, an employment figure in excess of the numbers in work before the pandemic.

“So this is a significant, comprehensive agenda here.”

Wedding bands

He even managed to get in a line about special supports for musicians in wedding bands.

Mary Lou would not be deflected.

“And be that as it may, Taoiseach, you will acknowledge that come September there are workers who will not be returned to work.”

But the PUP will start reducing in September, by which time thousands more will be back in work, countered Micheál. Nobody expected emergency payments to be there forever. Even Sinn Féin is on record saying “there would have to be a phasing-out”.

The people in rural Ireland and Kerry have been closed down and isolated for long enough

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall, acknowledging “many positive things” in the plan, also focused on the decision to start reducing the PUP payment.

“You said there would be no cliff edge,” she told the Taoiseach. But people out of work as a result of the pandemic will see a cut to their money in September.

“This is the very definition of a cliff edge.”

“We haven’t introduced a cliff edge. The very opposite is the case. We’ve extended it out,” retorted Micheál, sounding like a civil engineer.

After that, deputies veered off the less-than-engaging topic of the Recovery Bonanza and into other issues. During a lively Order of Business, the Ceann Comhairle had his work cut out trying to keep everyone in check.

Danny Healy-Rae’s demand for “a proper and full debate here inside to see what ye have against pubs in rural Ireland and ordinary punters that want to go for a pint. Surely he can trust the publicans and the people... The people in rural Ireland and Kerry have been closed down and isolated for long enough,” was met with a heartfelt reply from Micheál Martin.

“I’d love a pint myself, Ceann Comhairle, at some stage.”

Seán Ó Fearghaíl heaved a weary sigh.

“Well, I’d like one now. Or something stronger.”

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