Miriam Lord: Record budget forgotten in record time

Mother-and-baby homes, Level 4 restrictions and Brexit shove big spenders off agenda

  Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe   at Government Buildings ahead of  Budget 2021.  Photograph:  Julien Behal

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe at Government Buildings ahead of Budget 2021. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

At the crack of dawn they shot out of the traps and scattered to the four corners of the media.

Enthusiastic Ministers and an assortment of energetic juniors embarking on their financial roadshow, armed with one simple instruction: Sell, sell, sell! Never mind the quality, missus. Feel the width.

Budgeting doesn’t come bigger than this. The message was tailored for consumption outside of Leinster House, where the previous day’s Big Spender performance in the Dublin Convention Centre made a low-key impact on Wednesday’s post-budget Leaders’ Questions.

Not 24 hours since its announcement and the Biggest Budget Ever didn’t merit a mention from main Opposition leader Mary Lou McDonald who concentrated on the more pressing and specific issue of legislation which interest groups and Opposition politicians fear may lead to vital records relating to mother-and-baby homes sealed for 30 years.

The Taoiseach shared her belief that “everyone in this House wants to see justice and truth for those women and children”. But Micheál Martin argued the Minister for Children is “genuinely” bringing a Bill to preserve “invaluable information” held by the soon to be dissolved Mother-and-Baby Homes Commission rather than “lose it forever”.

It sounded like they were singing, possibly, from the hymn sheet, which would have been most unusual. Probably a side effect of post-budget exhaustion – in Micheál’s case from wantonly flinging tons of money at government departments and in Mary Lou’s case from brazenly claiming it was all Sinn Féin’s idea to fling it in the first place.

Despite agreeing that this information must be available and protected in the public interest, the pair quickly fell out over how this will be achieved.

Fear that these important records may be put beyond reach is “causing enormous alarm and huge upset” to survivors and families, said the Sinn Féin Leader, suggesting there are “serious questions” over why Roderic O’Gorman is pushing ahead with the legislation.

The Taoiseach thought she was personalising the matter. “I regret the degree to which you’ve cast aspersions on the Minister’s intentions and motivations, which are very sincere and heartfelt.” He didn’t want such a sensitive and important issue becoming the subject of a Dáil dispute.

‘Bespoke solution’

The Minister, he explained, was seeking “an urgent bespoke solution” to protect the data before time runs out. But Mary Lou remained unconvinced.

Similar concerns about what might happen to this information were raised in the Seanad. The Taoiseach stood by his Minister.

The Bill was to provide “urgent and critical legal clarity” and wasn’t an attempt to put any data beyond reach. But while Mary Lou was calling for a cross-party effort to find a solution, Micheál wasn’t impressed by the way she approached the issue in the chamber.

Even Mary Lou and her misplaced umbrage would have been hard pressed to divine aggression in the exchange

“You’ve come in attacking the Minister’s bona fides. Like, the Minister wants to help here. What he’s doing is sensible and the right thing to do before the end of October,” he said quietly, sounding very frustrated.

The Taoiseach, a picture of puzzlement, directly addressed the Sinn Féin leader. He still didn’t raise his voice. “Can you not see that? And I’ve no doubt the Minister will talk to you . . .” He didn’t get to finish the sentence before an acid response winged across the floor.

“You’re attacking me, actually,” declared Mary Lou.

Micheál looked mystified. “I am not attacking you. I’m just saying if you want cross-party . . .”

“Well you are being very aggressive and it is entirely unnecessary,” huffed the Sinn Féin president. The Taoiseach was nonplussed. “I’m not aggressive at all. I’m not aggressive at all. I’m simply saying . . .”

Mary Lou McDonald believed otherwise. “Go back and listen to it yourself,” she tartly retorted. But her advice was directed at the wrong person – she should have asked herself, because even Mary Lou and her misplaced umbrage would have been hard pressed to divine aggression in the exchange.

Public housing

The lack of support in the budget for public housing was raised by Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly, while another Independent TD, Matt Shanahan of Waterford, drew attention to the lack of budget largesse earmarked for his county.

Richard Boyd-Barrett of Solidarity–People Before Profit decided to leave his budget-related comments to later in the day so he could keep the plight of the striking Debenhams workers on the Dáil radar. A good decision because the usual schedule was cleared and from 1pm until midnight (or until everyone ran out of puff) the Dáil heard nothing else but statements on the Coalition’s epic pandemic giveaway.

Donnelly was full of promise and plans at his department’s post-budget briefing and can’t wait to start spending the money

Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath, the two Ministers responsible for opening the fiscal floodgates in an effort to shore up the Irish economy in the face of a twin onslaught from Covid and Brexit, spent most of their day out doing the media rounds with their budget baby. The other members of Cabinet took turns hosting press conferences at staggered intervals throughout the day, where they bragged about how much money they had bagged for the great works they intend to do in the year to come.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was particularly delighted. He’s had a torrid few months since his appointment but all that unpleasantness seemed to have evaporated with the injection of an extra €4 billion for his department. He was full of promise and plans at his department’s post-budget briefing and can’t wait to start spending the money.

“It’s the happiest he’s looked since he got the job,” said a regular observer. “He’s probably working already on his next 100 Days of Triumph video.” But if the Government thought it might be able to bask a little in its unprecedented budget blowout, it was sorely mistaken. Brushed aside by Covid and what restrictions might come next.

The Biggest Budget Ever and they didn’t even get the full day out of it.

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