Forget the codswallop - Quinn has a great chance for change

 

IT MAY be 1996 but some things never change. Ruairi Quinn is solemnly telling us that things are very tight and he has no room for manoeuvre, etc. Codswallop! No Minister for Finance in the State's history has had a greater opportunity of doing something really worthwhile in a budget than in that facing us.

Ruairi knows that well and all the ritual noises he made this week are just the normal Ministerial method of depressing expectations and suppressing demands. We can easily forget that in terms of personal taxation, at least, we are one of the most heavily taxed peoples in the world. We are so used to it by now that we may regard our level of personal taxation as the norm. If there are not dramatic and real, as opposed to cosmetic, cuts in personal tax this time, many of us will begin to despair, now that interest rates and inflation are at historically low levels and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

We have had again this time around an ever-increasing list of published pre-budget submissions to the Minister. If the Minister en gages in ritual noises so too do the various interest groups. Drapier never ceases to wonder at what an extraordinarily narrow view they take of the economy. They care not tuppence what damage their submissions would do to the economy generally, as long as it suits their particular interest.

The whole ceremonial song and dance will be played out again on the evening of the Budget when all the same interest groups will line up to tell RTE and the papers that it was a good or a bad budget, depending on the extent to which it met their particular self-interest and demands. It is a bit like a playing which everyone knows the script in advance. Because the actors and the producer are not particularly convincing, the entire performance becomes a big yawn.

THERE was the usual flood of supplementary estimates for all kinds of additional spending just before Christmas and again, as is normal, there was little or no scrutiny. Drapier can remember the days when John Bruton used to complain about hundreds of millions going through "on the nod". Obviously the same John does not remember those days. The much-vaunted committees are fairly toothless wonders when they allow all this to happen in their areas of jurisdiction.

The particularly dodgy supplementary estimate was Michael Noonan looking for £60 million for women with Hepatitis C in the second half of December, when he knew perfectly well that not one penny of that could be spent during 1995. There were earlier Ministers for Health in a different era who would not have lent their names to that particular ruse, but people are less fussy nowadays. The whole idea is to transfer this year's expenditure into last year's figures to make this year look better. It is a fairly crude manoeuvre but it fools some of the people, some of the time and that's okay by Michael.

Talking of interest groups reminds Drapier about how effective some of them are. The publicans are a noble body of men, and a small sprinkling of women, deeply esteemed in Leinster House. Who else could have a special Act passed for them to overcome the inconvenience of Christmas Day falling on a Monday and damaging their traditional Christmas Eve trade? That is exactly what happened when Nora Owen rushed in a special Bill applying weekday hours if the December 23rd or 24th happens to be a Sunday. Who else would have the clout to get themselves accommodated in this way?

We are reminded by economists of the unnecessary value of what the State gives out by way of Iicences. By limiting the number so severely, the value of the licence, whatever it may be, goes up enormously. We are told that taxi Iicences in Dublin now fetch huge sums, but anyone who tried to get a taxi, in Dublin at least, over the extended Christmas period, can vouch for their extreme scarcity. Brendan Howlin and Dublin Corporation decline to issue any more licences because the clout of the taxi-owners is too great.

The real test of the clout of an interest group is when it can get a Minister to make amendments in a Bill at the very last minute. The Law Library was shocked at the thought of solicitors becoming High Court judges and they prevailed on Nora Owen to withdraw her proposal at the last moment on the report stage of the recent Bill. Poor Nora's arm was so twisted that she also gave into them about wigs and made the 8th-century wig optional. Drapier doubts if many barristers will provoke the wrath of their colleagues by appearing bare-headed.

OUR economic news may be potentially good, but people in Leinster House are beginning to get the shivers about the North again.

The IRA, operating through its transparent pseudonym of DAAD, has notched up its first murder of' 96. How many more will there be? What sort of a society is it where a group of armed thugs decide that somebody must die if he is a potential threat to their own lucrative dealings in drugs?

Most of us in Leinster House had more or less welcomed Gerry Adams and Co into the club. Many of us are now having second thoughts. Sinn Fein's refusal to condemn what is going on and its unwillingness to stop it, does not bode well. So far as the North is concerned, 1996 is the great unknown.

And now we have Waterford. The unfortunate gardai must be feeling pretty cheesed off at seeing violent criminals let out after serving less than one-third of their sentence and then having to confront them again in the course of an armed bank robbery, putting their own lives in unnecessary danger. Nora Owen might be better employed listening to the Garda than listening to the demands of impoverished publicans or lawyers.

But the best bit of all was when she tried to transport Billy the Kid to Australia. Hasn't the wheel turned full circle? Is Billy the Kid to be our new John Mitchel or Gavan Duffy? What do the Australians think of if all? Will another Irish convict become Governor General of New South Wales in the 21st century?