Lenihan's levy the headline act in day of few surprises


As they served Christmas lunch in the canteen, deputies joked the turkey wouldn't be the only thing stuffed when Brian was finished, writes Miriam Lord

EYES ON the dust cloud of opposition in the distance, Brian sounded the bugle and unfurled Lenihan's Levy.

It was a gamble and his political legacy may yet depend on it.

So he appealed to the nation's better nature. "It's a call to patriotic action," no less.

That's how the Minister for Finance described his Budget measures yesterday, coming over all Kitchener as he exhorted the plain people of Ireland to "pull together" and sign up for the battle ahead.

Let there be no surrender to the creeping enemy of economic recession, was his rallying cry.

(Except on the part of Government Ministers who "will surrender 10 per cent of their current pay", whether they like it or not.)

It was being whispered in the corridors of Leinster House late last evening that quite a few junior and senior Ministers are a bit sore at having to hand over a significant portion of their lavish pay.

However, if we are all to play our part in the effort, the officer corps must show willing. So they sat quietly in the Dáil while Lenihan announced their pay cut, remaining strangely impassive in the way defendants do when a jury chairman returns a guilty verdict.

Not a flicker out of any of them.

Later in the evening, Lenihan let slip that the salaries of bank chiefs will be capped as part of the Government's guarantee scheme for financial institutions. One wonders if the reaction in the various boardrooms was as stoic?

Whatever about the anguished wails of the spancilled speculators, this information sent the media into budget-evening overdrive, pushing the growing reaction to Lenihan's Levy slightly off course.

Those of a more cynical bent might have been inclined to wonder if Brian had revealed that little nugget about the bankers accidentally on purpose.

Compared to the budget days of recent years, Brian's first Budget was tinged with excitement and anticipation.

Even afternoon business picked up in the Dáil bar for the occasion, justifying the decision to remove the high stools on health and safety grounds.

Nothing like a bloodbath to draw a crowd . . .

Budget 2009 had been trailed across the airwaves like a forthcoming teen-slasher movie. The spin was very effective. People came to Leinster House expecting a smorgasbord of savagery. They came away saying the Budget was more tame than they expected.

Brian had been expected to put us under the lash. He had to perform major surgery on the economy to save the country from sinking further into financial chaos.

He had to fit stabilisers.

Inject confidence.

Grasp the nettle.

No Minister had to do these things during the happy Bertie years.

Would Lenihan be up to the challenge? As it turned out, he was up to exactly what had been leaked to the media in the last week. There were hardly any surprises in his first Budget. It made the huge secrecy around the Budget speech seem surplus to requirements.

Although this was his maiden voyage, Lenihan didn't seem in the least bit fazed by the challenge. He posed for the traditional photo before entering the Dáil, all smiles. When he turned to go back into Government Buildings, he wished the onlookers "Good Luck", rather than the other way around.

For the record, Brian wore a navy blue tie with white stripes. These things matter, it seems, to our betting brethren.

His daughter Claire (13) watched from the public gallery, Albert Reynolds watched from the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery while the Minister's auntie, deputy Mary O'Rourke, beamed with pride from her seat in the back row. It was a three-string pearl day for Mary.

Two sniffer dogs had been brought around the chamber earlier in the day. We don't know whether they were looking for drugs or explosives. Dasher and Bruno, black and golden Labradors, were lavished with attention. Dasher insisted on giving the paw - although it was a bit late in the day to be expecting any handouts.

Meanwhile, they were serving Christmas lunch with all the trimmings in the canteen. Deputies joked that by the time Brian Lenihan was finished, the turkey wouldn't be only thing stuffed.

The reason for this unseasonal dish on the menu was that Budget day used to be in December, and it would kick off the Dáil's Christmas menu. The turkey was served for old times' sake.

As ever, the Budget speech was uneventful - save for occasional eruptions from Longford's James Bannon, who became quite overwrought when he heard that Longford Barracks was facing closure.

But the slow burner of the afternoon was Lenihan's Levy. The measures to encourage more people to cycle may have led to more levity in the chamber, but the levy got the attention afterwards.

Patriotic action is all very fine, but deputies, on all sides, were wondering about the wisdom of taxing people on the minimum wage, people like carers and home helps, for example.

It was a tragedy, repeated Fine Gael's Richard Bruton. The "Celtic Cruiser" was drifting towards the rocks, the government was sitting on its hands and asleep at the wheel.

Joan Burton switched from sea to land. The Government was still sitting on it hands, only driving the economy into a ditch. In fact, "The Two Brians sat on their hands all summer," going on about their fundamentals.

Labour's Jan O'Sullivan broke the rules by wearing a badge on her lapel saying "Cure Greed". She got around Dáil etiquette by saying it was an "art installation". When the Government wasn't at sea or driving to oblivion, it was trying "to crucify every single person" in the country with a sledgehammer, said Enda Kenny. "This is going to nail them to an economic cross." Thank God for bicycles and private jets.

Executive jets are exempt from the new €10 airport departure tax.

And if all else fails, we can always turn to drink. As the Minister said, there would be no increase in the duty on beer, spirits, cider and diesel.

Diesel, must be a popular tipple round Castleknock way.