There was no escape from the disapproving glare of Mary Lou McDonald. The top men endured together in silence, a glowering line of sullen suits. There was nothing they could do but sit there and take it.
Occasionally, she addressed them as “gentlemen”. But only to emphasise the depth of her disdain. The tone was withering.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. The leader of the Green Party, Eamon Ryan. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Mary Lou’s captive audience in the premium seats on the Government front bench.
Before the Sinn Féin president had a chance to speak she was subjected to repeated attacks from the three party leaders sitting opposite. The Taoiseach was particularly caustic in his criticism of Sinn Féin’s cynically populist approach to politics. “Please go somewhere else in your desperate search for a fight,” he implored Mary Lou. “Never before has there been an Opposition so completely disinterested in the overall economic picture.”
She listened to them all, unmoved. They would say that, wouldn’t they?
Finally, Mary Lou got her chance to respond to the gentlemen’s much trumpeted budget and do what she sets out to do every time they face off in the Dáil – wipe the floor with them. At the end of her trenchant contribution, ardent applause from the benches around her signalled that at least her colleagues believed it was mission accomplished.
There was a sense of schoolboys being carpeted by the principal about Wednesday’s clash:
“And what did I tell you. What did I tell you to do?”
“Ban rent increases for three years, Mary Lou.”
“And did you do that?”
“No, Mary Lou.”
“And what else did I tell you to do?”
“Set up a Citizens’ Assembly on uniting Ireland.”
“And WHAT precisely did you do?”
“Nothing, Mary Lou.”
“What are yis?”
“Failed and directionless, Mary Lou.”
But, as she lambasted them for their lack of vision in producing a total failure of a budget, she could have been talking to the wall, for all that her targets cared. From their position, hard hitting tirades are 10 a penny from the leader of Sinn Féin. They have long insisted that her trademark brand of perpetual indignation has become such a hackneyed act that it is now empty and meaningless.
So they let her berate them, the words going in one ear and out the other because, for now, they are the ones with the power.
And if their budget, delivered the day before, is going to get them into serious trouble it won’t be because of Sinn Féin’s standard reject-by-numbers routine. But rumblings of disquiet from a diverse collection of TDs including Independents Seán Canney, Micheal Lowry and Danny Healy-Rae indicated that the Coalition might yet hit a budget bollard over the new 10 per cent levy on concrete blocks.
As the afternoon wore on, reports began to emerge of “backbench unrest” over the issue.
Danny Healy-Rae was completely gobsmacked by the decision.
“Ministers, first of all, I do thank ye for the positive aspects of the budget and, to be fair, I do thank you for that. But, God almighty, what trauma came over ye with what ye did putting a levy on concrete?” he spluttered. “Ye are supposed to be the Government with this mantra of housing for all... And what do ye do? Put a 10 per cent levy on concrete and concrete blocks and people trying to do the basic thing and put a roof over their heads. And ye allocated a grant for farm buildings for storage of slurry and then you take it away by increasing the cost of concrete.
“I mean, ‘tis totally and absolutely ridiculous. I honestly think that a team of men and women, if they were in the horrors of drink for a week, they wouldn’t come up with such a ridiculous proposal.”
On the morning after the budget, the Dáil relocates to the mythical Land of What Might Have Been to celebrate CSW Day. CSW is short for CuddaShuddaWudda, which are the words traditionally spoken with much passion by Opposition speakers waxing lyrical about an alternative world where their budget is presented to the people of Ireland and everyone lives happily ever after because the budget was perfect. But sadly, the country has been saddled a pathetic excuse of a budget which is “a missed opportunity”.
Mary Lou outlined in detail what Ministers Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath failed to do by not following every proposal set out in Sinn Féin’s alternative budget, although mercifully they snaffled some of their ideas to make up the few good parts of Budget 2023.
“It could and should have been a watershed budget,” she concluded. “It could and should have been a budget prioritising those on lower and middle incomes. It could and should have been a budget that really tackled the cost-of-living crisis ...” And so on.
“That’s the type of budget, gentlemen, that Sinn Féin would have delivered yesterday,” she informed the four buckos opposite, cloaking the “G” word in contempt to the nodding approval of her party and particularly the three women to her left and the two women sitting behind.
And whither the “alternative Labour budget published last week”? The Government stupidly chose to ignore that too, which was “deeply disappointing” for party leader Ivana Bacik. “The Government could instead have adopted the approach we took in our Labour Party budget last week,” she sighed, “but unfortunately this was an opportunity missed.”
The Social Democrats, said Jennifer Whitmore, proposed an ambitious roll-out of free solar panels for 100,000 low-income homes which would need Government support to meet climate changes requirements. “It really would have been a no-brainer,” said the TD for Wicklow. “It would have been a just revolution that, unfortunately, the Government has failed to deliver.”
As for Paul Murphy of People Before Profit, he wasn’t particularly surprised that the Government ignored their alternative budget but he was surprised by all the talk of a great “giveaway bonanza budget” when the upshot is that people are going to be even worse off next year.
“And don’t take this from me, take it from Cliff Taylor writing in The Irish Times: ‘Living standards will fall on average by about 3 per cent this year and 2 per cent next year’.” Not that Paul believes a word written in The Irish Times.
The most touching contribution of the day came from Michael Lowry. The Independent TD for Tipperary prefaced his thoughts on the budget with a wistful trip down memory lane to the good old days when all the measures weren’t fed to the media in advance and when an ordinary Fine Gael minister for communications could help secure the winning of a mobile phone licence for a businessman. You know, the swashbuckling days before tribunal of inquiries started looking into disgraced politicians’ dodgy dealings.
Budget Day had been “diminished” by all this leaking, he said. In his 40 years in the Dáil (tribunal decisions clearly have no truck with certain voters in Tipperary), he has seen the budget day process “altered dramatically” from a time when there was an air of anxiety, anticipation and excitement around a packed Leinster House as people waited for the big reveal.
On Tuesday, because of the “drip-drip” of leaks there was no atmosphere. “The day itself has lost its lustre and impact.”
Lowry is right.
And he knows more than most that giving away secrets and confidential information has its consequences.