Enda wasn’t making a joke. Even if everyone else was laughing. The Taoiseach was talking about those twin sisters, Competence and Prudence. (Competence, God bless her, doesn’t get out much. Prudence has been around the block a bit.)
They’ll be trotted out a lot by the Coalition in the next couple of months.
“Now,” said Enda, looking very serious, “I want to make it clear that just because we happen to be heading towards the end of the lifetime off this Government and that an election is due to take place in the spring, this Government will continue, deliberately, to manage the financial affairs of this country in a prudent and competent fashion.”
He emphasised the word “deliberately”, presumably because until now, his Government was unintentionally prudent and competent in its management the economy
Furthermore, promised Enda, with not even a hint of a smirk: “Just because an election is on the way doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a rash of endless promises that cannot be met.”
That line tickled the TDs no end. And not even a manifesto launched yet. The place erupted.
“Brilliant!” roared Finian McGrath.
The Taoiseach didn’t join in.
But then, he had just been cut to the quick by Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim, a man who likes to think he speaks for rural voters, particularly those who reside west of the Shannon. When he rose at Leaders' Questions to make his contribution on behalf of the Technical Group, his mobile phone caused heavy interference with the Dáil's microphone system.
"Ming is coming home for Christmas!" shouted Fine Gael's Noel Coonan, referring to Fitzmaurice's Dáil predecessor and close political ally.
Cat out of the bag
Michael wanted to bring up a subject close to Enda’s heart: the exchequer returns. The relevant data was to be formally released at 4.30 yesterday afternoon, but such was the good news that
let the cat out of the bag when appearing before the finance committee on Tuesday night.
Despite efforts by Labour Senator Aideen Hayden, who was in the chair, to get him to stay on topic (next week's Ecofin meeting, no less), Noonan heroically let slip that tax receipts were "a shade under €3 billion" ahead of target and Government borrowing should be eliminated in a couple of years.
The Taoiseach was more than willing to talk about this at Leaders’ Questions, but less than pleased when Fitzmaurice asserted that counties such as Roscommon and Mayo weren’t getting much from his much-vaunted recovery.
“What has gone wrong?” asked Michael, listing a number of areas – including jobs, health and broadband – where he feels the region has been overlooked.
“Will you set up a taskforce or will you get your Ministers to concentrate on the counties in the west that are in difficulty at the moment? Because, Taoiseach, you might have forgotten, but you ARE from the west.”
There was a sharp intake of breath on all sides. “Oooooh!”
Heads swivelled towards Enda. He didn’t look happy. “That comment is beneath you as a fellow west of Ireland man.”
Icicles formed on the ledge behind him.
The Taoiseach was highly affronted. He went on to refresh Fitzmaurice’s memory on the various great works wrought by the Government west of the Shannon and farther afield. Not that the Government is trying to take credit for this.
“I think it’s an indication – or a demonstration – of the credit that must go to the Irish people, north, south, east and west for the way they accepted the challenges of the mess that we inherited.”
A little groan could be heard from the Fianna Fáil benches, already looking a little queasy following reports that the party is making eyes at Sinn Féin and the Shinners are cooing right back at them.
That had us thinking. Did the Taoiseach ever say anything before about the country being in such a parlous state? How we were on our knees when Fine Gael and Labour took over from "that crowd over there"?
At least he was able to mention the €3 billion extra in the coffers, which “speaks for itself”.
Except it doesn’t, because Enda and Joan and the rest have generously decided to take on those speaking duties themselves.
And they won’t stop talking until the election is over.
The opportunity to further the national debt would not only be in Deputy Fitzmaurice’s interest, but in everybody’s interest, said the Taoiseach, in full rehearsal mode for the hustings
Back of a lorry
As for what has been achieved thus far in the west, he didn’t need his notes to reel off a long list of projects. Those facts are now soapbox-ready. Coming soon to the back of a lorry or town hall stage near you.
And standing by will be Competence and Prudence, ready to be paraded before the electorate.
The Government is playing a clever game. For all the Opposition say they haven’t achieved, they can point to all that they have achieved and how it was accomplished from a near hopeless starting position.
After years of short rations, the lid is off the national biscuit tin. And Enda and Joan are now parading it around, inviting people to look in and sample the contents.
They are not being reckless. Yes, there is another layer of fancies in the tin. They will even let you peek under the top tray to see them. But they won’t be touched, in the interest of Prudence.
In the years after the election, if you return the Coalition, they’ll produce the other layers.
Risk it for a biscuit.