“Excuse me? I’m sorry – what?”
Budget 2024 hadn’t even started in the Dáil and the Government was already having a barney with Sinn Féin.
The early skirmish happened in an RTÉ studio when Minister of State Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Sinn Féin’s Pádraig MacLochlainn were discussing the measures to come.
“We have the most progressive tax system in the OECD,” said MacNeill, preferring not to comment on specifics until the Minister for Finance had performed the annual regurgitation of the leaks.
But she was happy to give an outline of the Government’s tax policy with its emphasis on reducing tax for working people and directing resources towards those who are earning less than €50,000 and not getting any other supports.
“I can show you all the figures Pádraig if you need me to take you through it,” she murmured sweetly. “And don’t worry, I can do that when the budget speech is on.”
The Donegal man, not partial to being patronised, was equally sweet in his reply.
“I’m sure Pearse Doherty will look forward to debating you after this budget.”
“No problem!” chirruped Jennifer.
But Pádraig wasn’t finished.
“And I’m sure he’ll look forward to putting manners on you in terms of…”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence.
“Excuse me? I’m sorry – what? What did THAT mean?”
At which point RTÉ went over to Leinster House for the budget statements.
But without a word from either Minister involved in the subsequent Dáil double-hander, we already had one big takeaway from the big day: Pádraig MacLochlainn is a brave man…
We do not know how badly Pádraig was mauled when the camera cut away. But by early evening Fine Gael sources were making angry noises about his inappropriate use of language towards a female junior minister. A row may be brewing.
Kildare Street was en fete all day with neon-bibbed gardaí drafted in from around the country strung along the perimeters like party lights. Crowd-control barriers brightly festooned the footpath leading to Leinster House with a towering plywood peace wall tacked to the welcoming steel so people on either side of it couldn’t see each other.
Garda Commissioner Drew Harris made a heckle-free personal appearance at one point to inspect the lonely barricade. He should have brought a deckchair along to enjoy the unseasonably balmy weather because there was nothing else for him to do.
The only danger he possibly faced was an opportunistic seagull robbing his ham sandwich.
The road was closed to traffic at both ends and pedestrians – mainly people accessing their workplace or with business to conduct – were vetted before they could gain admission.
It was a budget day wasteland.
TDs and Senators bemoaned the lack of atmosphere. Protesters are a traditional feature of this set piece event on the political calendar and their absence was noted. Sadly, it seems the ordinary decent protesters stayed away for fear of being consigned to that very small and rank barrel of bad apples.
A victory for the rotten fruit, if this is going to be the norm on major parliamentary occasions.
Politicians joked there were more members of the Minister for Finance’s family inside the Dáil for the budget than there were protesters outside.
This is true.
Michael McGrath’s mother Marie, his wife Sarah and their seven children arrived to take their place in the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery before his big moment.
Paschal Donohoe’s wife Justine and children Oscar and Lucy were also there, but they are old hands at this gig by now.
One big family in the gallery and an even bigger family – the Soldiers of Destiny – on the floor of the House witnessed a Fianna Fáil minister presenting the budget for the first time in 13 years.
When Michael concluded his speech, they applauded with gusto before rising to their feet in a standing ovation.
The Minister looked absolutely thrilled and there wasn’t a parrot in the entire world as sick as the members of the Opposition looking on at the delighted Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators.
When Paschal finished his statement, he got applause from his Fine Gael colleagues but, after a decade in government, they are too blasé now for standing ovations. It might also be because he went over his speaking time by six minutes, which is a lot when the allotted space is a meaty three-quarters of an hour.
Deputies from all sides were talking among themselves well before he stopped talking.
Star of the show was little Kate McGrath, who is 7½ years old. She joined her older sister and brothers – Ruth, Luke, Tom, Ronan, David and Jack in the chamber for their father’s first budget statement. She watched the scene unfolding below, cradling her two favourite cuddly toys in her arms – Cornie the unicorn and Snowflake the rag doll.
In the outside world, news of the Michael’s clatter of children sparked high hopes for a major boost in the children’s allowance payment.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar led a rush Government Ministers and TDs to the gallery to greet the McGrath contingent. Leo shook paws with Cornie.
This proved quite distressing for some people in the press gallery as it was locked because the speeches were about to begin and there were no sick bags available.
We struggled on.
Once the official regurgitation of the leaks began, a team of ushers bearing armloads of books and documents fanned out across the chamber, silently decanting substantial Budget 2024 information packs in front of every TD.
“So much for a paperless budget,” texted a Government deputy after this doorstep of printed material landed on his ledge.
McGrath sailed through his speech with almost two minutes to spare. There were no big surprises, although smokers might have been more breathless than usual with a higher-than-expected 75 cent plonked on a pack of 20.
As he spoke, Garry Gannon and Michael Fitzmaurice were engaged in a friendly tussle over the documentation. It seemed that Galway Independent Michael spotted Social Democrat Gary swiping one of his information booklets and he wanted it back.
The matter was amicably resolved.
Apart from a cry of “Shame! Shame!” from an unidentified female opposition deputy when Paschal Donohoe announced a €4 weekly increase in child allowance, this was the only element of drama in a very low-key hour and a half from the Government side.
In fairness, Paschal was probably exhausted from all his zippy pre-budget vignettes on Instagram and father of seven Michael doesn’t do zippy in the day job.
On the Government benches, the Ministers looked fairly subdued too but this was understandable. As Budget 2024 came to a close and all the measures were finally nailed down, stories began to emerge of magnificent heroics from the various senior office-holders.
Their previously reticent advisers began pumping out yarns about how their man or woman “secured” loads of money after going down to the wire in negotiations. They must have been exhausted.
On the fashion front, one Minister wore a maroon tie (McGrath) and the other wore a blue-grey tie (Donohoe). And navy suits. Paschal’s hair was short and tidy, and Micheal’s widow’s peak was neatly edged.
Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman Pearse Doherty led the replies. Like the Minister for Public Expenditure, he’s another old hand at this lark but from the other side of the floor.
He wasn’t five minutes into his contribution before his first “shame on you!” was directed at Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien.
He had failed to reach his housing targets, thundered Pearse, and if he managed to reach them they would be doomed to failure anyway.
Darragh mumbled darkly at his tormentor-in-chief whose preferred method of attack was to veer between cries of “shameful” and “you couldn’t make it up!”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s eagle-eyed health spokesman David Cullinane was rightly pleased with himself when he discovered an inaccuracy in the health figures while Paschal Donohoe was still on his feet. He discovered (and quickly checked with the department) that the announcement of substantial funding for more beds and staff referred to commitments already funded and delivered.
That will be filed as a major cock-up on the spin front for the Government.
Their benches remained empty, save for a Minister or two to take the bare look off proceedings, for the expected onslaught of cliché that followed the statements.
“Too little, too late… squandered chances… missed opportunity… out of touch… uncaring… lazy ‘Reeling in the Years’ budget… a Government backslapping exercise… sounds like budget 2024 lite… The Johnny Logan approach: what’s another year…”
Nuggets from the likes of Ged Nash, Róisín Shortall, Mick Barry and the rest. Appearing all week in the chamber. And the canteen has reopened.
Try the roast beef. It’s very nice.