The authorities were taking no chances. At the crack of dawn, they closed off Merrion Street and Kildare Street and placed heavy-duty crowd control barriers around the main gates to Leinster House. Sniffer dogs were brought in to give the grounds the once-over. As the morning wore on, the Garda presence intensified.
It was, after all, Budget Day — that quaint ceremony in the parliamentary calendar when Dáil Éireann conducts the formal rubber-stamping of The Leaks and nobody even bothers to act surprised any more.
The budget statements came and went, unlike the rubberneckers and protesters, who didn’t turn up at all. By mid-afternoon those barriers were being dismantled. Groups of bored-looking gardaí stood around with nobody to arrest. It was unusually quiet.
This strangely muted atmosphere mirrored the mood inside Leinster House, where political passions which might have detonated were smothered by layer after plump layer of exceptional Government largesse.
Everyone knew what was coming, but Paschal and Michael’s binge-it budget still managed to silence the usual suspects.
The most exciting moments happened before and after the event. (Apart from one delicious instant where Richard Boyd Barrett — one of the few to buck the trend by almost getting carried away — waved his arms so wildly he almost took the head off his colleague Mick Barry.)
There was a territorial dispute among Coalition colleagues just before the day’s business commenced. On set-piece occasions such as Budget Day when a full house is expected, an allocated seating rule is observed to avoid confusion and claim jumpers. On Tuesday, this led to tense exchanges between Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South West Christopher O’Sullivan and Fine Gael TD for Dublin Fingal Alan Farrell.
O’Sullivan went to his allocated spot in the middle of the front row — the same seating arrangement applied when Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the Oireachtas — only to find Farrell in situ. He asked his Coalition colleague to move but he refused.
“I don’t see your name on it,” was Farrell’s response, much to the annoyance of the Fianna Fáil TDs in the vicinity. Following a brief stand-off, O’Sullivan found a billet in the back row.
This was a giveaway budget long before it was delivered, with every detail given away before Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath got to their feet at lunchtime. This allowed Opposition spokespeople the chance to parade on to the plinth before the event and condemn it.
Speaking of lunch, the tradition of putting on a Budget Day Christmas feast continued in the Dáil canteen. Turkey, ham and all the trimmings went down a treat with all sides of the political spectrum. The yuletide menu used to be a funny take on the wallet-tightening measures about to be revealed upstairs in the chamber. Tuesday’s rich fare — not forgetting the puddin’ with lashings of brandy sauce — was more like a real-time commentary on the lavish all-you-can-eat approach adopted this year.
The public gallery was very sparsely populated, mainly by men in suits giving off a strong whiff of Eau d’Accountancy
Some of the latest intake of TDs were ridiculously excited by the prospect of attending their first budget statement in the chamber since their election. Covid regulations denied them this privilege until now.
The excitement waned well before the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure finished their 90-minute speech relay, and most of them bolted from the Government benches as soon as Michael McGrath sat down. The Sinn Féin deputies stayed until Pearse Doherty and Mairéad Farrell replied and then they fled too.
The public gallery was very sparsely populated, mainly by men in suits giving off a strong whiff of Eau d’Accountancy.
As this is their big moment, the Ministers speak from the seats normally occupied by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. Paschal Donohoe (Finance) was first to speak, with the stony-faced Michael McGrath (Public Expenditure) next to him.
With all the unbridled leaking of information in the run-up to their statements, there wasn’t the usual attempt at expectation management from Government circles. The nearest Merrion Street came to it was in dark whispers about parsimonious Michael being a little wary about giving too much away.
Apparently, some of his meetings with Ministers were “tense” because he had to explain he couldn’t throw money at everything. Fiscal prudence, and all that.
And then, when it was his turn to speak, he threw money at everything they wanted. Just as Paschal had done. Except more.
Because we are awash with money.
“We must use our surplus wisely,” intoned Paschal, speaking very slowly and deliberately, as if addressing an audience of halfwits. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste stifled smiles. We may not know what challenges await, continued the Minister for Finance in that familiar singsong delivery, but whatever happens “I believe we will prevail”.
As he stood in the front row sweetly dispensing eye-watering wodges of cash, he read the magic money tree words from a folder held up in both hands. All that was missing was a crimson cassock and white surplice and a stall in Westminster Abbey.
When Paschal finished he sat down and patted Michael (who hadn’t spoken yet) on the back.
The Government and Opposition benches remained remarkably silent. No vulgar cheering in this time of crisis for so many people, but the backbenchers couldn’t conceal their smirks as they stared across at their Sinn Féin rivals.
Senior Ministers weren’t much better as the list of their concessions grew.
Junior Minister Thomas Byrne couldn’t resist when free schoolbooks were mentioned. “Well done, Norma!” he hollered as Minister for Education Norma Foley was going through the document with an orange highlighter pen.
In keeping with the theme of no surprises, McGrath finished with a quote from Seamus Heaney. When a new minister is appointed, do they receive a collection of Heaney quotes along with a copy of the Cabinet Handbook?
Mick Barry of People Before Profit found it hard to stomach. He lashed out a tweet. “Bloody hell. Michael McGrath ends his Budget speech by quoting a couple of lines from Seamus Heaney. If I was Minister for Finance I would bring in a special tax on establishment politicians who quote Seamus Heaney more than once every five years.”
Pearse Doherty’s response to this unprecedented bonanza was to claim the best bits were Sinn Féin ideas in the first place while claiming his party would have done everything else differently
Mick was also disappointed with the calibre of Government yahooing, describing the few cheers as “dreadfully low-key” — proof they knew their budget wasn’t up to scratch.
Also on the social media front, Fine Gael trilled: “Today is Budget Day!”, informing the lucky populace that Simon Harris and Helen McEntee “will be providing updates throughout the day”. Or recycling the leaks.
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty had the unenviable task of tackling the bulkhead of bounty. He did his best, but the silence of the SF benches behind him spoke volumes. In essence, his response to this unprecedented bonanza was to claim the best bits were Sinn Féin ideas in the first place while claiming his party would have done everything else differently.
Or, as his colleague Mairéad Farrell rather bafflingly put it to McGrath: “You’ve spent the weekend rummaging through our wardrobe, stealing our clothes, but unfortunately rather than a fashion upgrade, it appears to be something of a wardrobe malfunction.” You could tell by his expression that McGrath was wondering where exactly this metaphor was going.
“The outfit you have chosen doesn’t match, you’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet and some of our proposals that you have borrowed… you’ve weakened them or watered them down or simply made them unworkable.”
Michael Collins of the Rural Independents gave a fine description of the Government’s incontinent approach: “An assless bucket, leaking beyond control.”
It wasn’t long before Ministers fanned out for their trumpet-blowing press conferences. This led to the second most exciting occurrence of the day when a fire alarm went off in Government Buildings, forcing everyone out of the spanking new Government press centre.
Darragh O’Brien was holding his briefing when the alarm went off. It resulted in the supreme irony of the Minister for Housing being evicted from his own press conference.