By George, he tried to cheer us up, but he had few takers
IT was the moment of truth for the Irish taxpayer -- or, as RTE's Sean O'Rourke put it on the 'News at One' "the day of dread has finally arrived", bringing what was likely to be "the most horrible Budget in the history of the State".
However, Newstalk's George Hook was having none of such doom and gloom. Buoyed perhaps by the extra pay cheque he gets from RTE for his ruminations on Irish rugby, George was being decidedly upbeat, declaring that the attitude both of himself and of his radio show would be one of "positivity -- we're not going to allow the naysayers to talk us down". Anyway, he had been scrutinising the weather forecasts and "there's a thaw on the way, so cheer up"!
On 2fm a few hours earlier, Ryan Tubridy had been attempting positivism, too, promising to play songs that would "ease the pain". Then he put on Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive', about which he had nothing good to say: "Dreadful song, over-the-top, crazy, but somehow appropriate."
On Radio 1, John Murray had also been spinning music he hated, specifically Coldplay's version of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'. When it was over, he accused them of "murdering a very nice song -- what did it ever do to them?".
Oddly, what the Government has been doing to the country, and what it was about to do to it, wasn't much mentioned throughout the morning. It was as it was all too depressing to contemplate, and so even Pat Kenny avoided the subject, apart from asking this paper's political correspondent Fionnan Sheahan to anticipate Fine Gael's response to the Budget by reminding us of the wit of its finance spokesman Michael Noonan in his ripostes on previous occasions.
Fionnan did his darndest by recalling Michael's fondness for inserting into his counterblasts literary allusions and flamboyant metaphors concerning broken-down cars and clapped-out horses, but the examples he gave sounded somewhat strained and clever-clever. Maybe you had to have been there. However, he assured us that Michael's oration would be "worth hanging around for", so I vowed to do just that.
On the 'News at One', RTE political reporter Brian Dowling revealed to Sean O'Rourke that high-earning public sector executives were likely to have their annual salaries slashed to a piddling €250,000. Marvelling at this prospect, Sean reeled off the amounts pocketed by some of these fat cats, from the €750,000 currently taken home by the ESB's head honcho to the €326,000 given to outgoing RTE boss Cathal Goan. So if Brian's information was correct, by the end of the day all of these high-rollers would be earning almost as little as Sean himself.
Not to mention less than half what RTE pays to Marian Finucane, whose radio advertisement on behalf of Simon was played at regular intervals throughout the day. "You can make a real difference to someone who's homeless," Marian assured listeners, while advising: "Give whatever you can." I certainly will, Marian, just so long as you give a lot more.
Fifteen minutes before Brian Lenihan's speech, RTE One's Bryan Dobson solicited the views of his panellists, but not even Fine Gael's reliably voluble and conspicuously career-minded Leo Varadkar could think of much to say, while Fianna Fail's Tony Killeen just spouted the usual tired platitudes that constitute his party's current beleaguered position.
A few minutes later the moment of truth, the Finance Minister almost bounding down the stairs of the Dail, as if an awareness that the horror of it all would soon be over lent a relieving spring to his step.
And his speech began in such upbeat fashion that George Hook would surely have approved of its feelgood tone. He spoke of "clear signs of hope" and "recovery taking shape" and "continuing export growth" and a "strengthening agri-sector" and "falling unemployment", and for a second it seemed that it had all been a dreadful nightmare and that we were still on the pig's back, with Charlie McCreevy chuckling by our side and Bertie beaming at us as if we were his best pals.
Then he got down to the nitty-gritty and it was back to ghastly reality, though Mary Coughlan, pretty in pink and seated two down from the minister, had obviously retreated into transcendental mode, her eyes glazed and remote as she contemplated some faraway nirvana of her own imagining -- a Donegal on the Caribbean, perhaps, where life was all rustic gaiety and sun-drenched ease.
The minister having said his sombre say, Michael Noonan was allotted his own moment in the sun -- no more than 40 minutes, the Ceann Comhairle had cautioned him, though he was blessedly briefer than that. Having been alerted earlier by Fionnan, I waited for Michael's stylistic flourishes, but apart from a reference to the Bourbons and a dubious quip about waterboarding, Michael was in very earnest, socially-concerned mood, and all the better for it.
Then it was the turn of Labour's Joan Burton, who went on for so long and so gratingly that I switched over to TV3, where Vincent Browne was up to his usual wearisome trick of turning supposed questions to panellists into extended rants of his own.
So it was back reluctantly to Joan's querulous and seemingly interminable tirade. I say "seemingly" because, rather than wait to see if it would ever end, I eventually switched off, went to the front steps and waited for the thaw that George had predicted.
It didn't happen, but I took his advice all the same and cheered up.
Sure, what else can you do?