On mature reflection


ON MATURE reflection, as the late Brian Lenihan might have put it, the Government has made a hames of this Budget. It looked after neither "the auld ones" nor "the little ones". It is profoundly unfair to the vulnerable and the less well-off in our society. It completely lacks a vision of the new Ireland of the future. That is why the call for patriotic action made by the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, to round off his Budget speech a week ago, is falling on deaf ears.

The shaping and handling of the Budget and in particular, that aspect relating to medical cards for the over-70s, has been extraordinarily inept. The multiparty Government managed, at a single stroke, to distress and infuriate a sizable section of the electorate while generating an incipient revolt amongst its own backbenchers. It has taken three separate public interventions by Taoiseach Brian Cowen to clarify and stabilise the situation. And even now, the position for the over-70s is not clear.

The Government spent a great deal of time and energy conditioning the body politic for a hurting budget, one of the worst in the living memory of many voters. With the instability and uncertainty of the banking crisis across the world, the declaration of a real recession, the fall-off in consumer spending and the realisation that times are tight, the Government was given a golden opportunity.

It fluffed it. It took a mid-summer report by the Economic and Social Research Institute to shock the Government out of its own complacency. And its response - in spreading the message that the economic climate had changed fundamentally and hard times were upon us - was both delayed and inadequate. The knee-jerk reaction by its own backbenchers to a range of budgetary measures that are already being viewed as inadequate says it all.

Mr Cowen expressed regret for the anxiety and distress caused to elderly people by his Government's blundering behaviour. But the paroxysms of political and public uncertainty caused by the affair are of greater concern. They raise questions in relation to clear judgment and sturdy Cabinet determination when it comes to matters that affect other, more powerful, interests.

Financial turmoil overseas has impacted most severely on construction and financial services. At their peak, those areas accounted for more than one-third of our labour force. Because of that, unemployment has risen rapidly. And it is likely to get worse. That development will exert great strain on medical card benefits and other services. As Minister for Health Mary Harney acknowledged: "the next few years are going to be extremely difficult. . . there is going to be a lot of pain and the challenges we face will be enormous".

Before he left for China yesterday, the Taoiseach modified the 1 per cent levy on incomes that was announced in the Budget. Arising from representations by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - and with a national wage deal in the balance - Mr Cowen excluded all those with an income below the minimum wage. The Government must now show it is capable of not just difficult decisions, but of imagination, and political and social judgment.