Ian O'Doherty: A punch in the face is still better than a kick in the ...
JESUS Christ. That was the reaction of most of us who gathered together in our local bar yesterday to watch what had been widely trumpeted as the most stringent Budget in the history of the State.
The country is banjaxed and the Government has made history by becoming the first lame- duck administration to ever decide this country's future for the next decade at least -- long after the people responsible will have been consigned to well-deserved ignominy and obscurity.
But, in what counts as one of the most brazen insults to Irish taxpayers of all time, their well deserved obscurity and ignominy will not be matched with penury.
As we watched with disbelieving eyes, the system once again looked after itself while pretending to don a horsehair shirt and flagellate itself.
The Taoiseach -- well, at least we know it won't be the fool Cowen -- will see his/her wages cut from €285,583 to €228,466 per annum.
Now, doesn't that make you feel better?
You are impotently watching your wallet become ever more anorexic, but at least you can console yourself with the fact that whoever inherits that job will only, only, be earning the guts of a quarter of a million a year. And that's before their beloved expenses. And sundry perks.
Say, for instance, that you're one of the tens of thousands of newly unemployed; someone who has worked your ass off during the good times and now, all of a sudden, all the pots you paid into, all your rainy day money, has just been taken off you -- your social welfare is down by 4pc; you've just lost a tenner a month for your children's allowance and, if you had any pensions savings, well, you can kiss them goodbye.
This country has gone through such a horrific few months that we are collectively suffering from Battered Citizens Syndrome.
This means that we oscillate between fear and loathing of this Government -- the swing between outright contempt and disdain we feel for the current administration is also tempered by a sense that, really, we are as powerless in front of them as they are in front of the IMF -- while desperately wondering if they could somehow pull a magical rabbit out of the hat.
In fact, the only rabbit they could produce would be the one from 'Donnie Darko', and, as anyone who has seen that film knows, that's not a rabbit you ever want to meet face to face.
No, instead we all gathered in the pub, terrified, watching the events from the Dail unfold like some sort of World Cup draw -- from Hell.
Instead of Blatter, we had Lenihan -- gravely informing us of the coming apocalypse.
We all knew what was coming -- massive hikes on booze and fags; social welfare to be savaged; medical costs to go through the roof and there existed a general sense of trepidation. Actually, scratch that -- we have left the days of trepidation behind. This was genuine fear.
And yet the whole thing turned out rather differently to what had been expected.
When was the last Budget that didn't hit booze and fags?
I'm an enthusiastic drinker and smoker, and I was, if not necessarily happy, at least prepared to take the hit on what are, after all, luxury items.
Instead, they stay as they are -- amidst rumours from the Dail that Government is so worried about the excise revenue they would lose from smuggling and cross-border shopping that they decided to take the coward's way out and leave them alone.
And that's the weird thing about this Budget. It doesn't seem to be an IMF budget, where everyone undergoes indiscriminate carpet-bombing of their finances. This seems more subtle, more insidious.
Perhaps the biggest worry, for instance, that I had (outside of the impact that this would have on me, obviously) was that they would hit the old- age pension.
Frankly, the idea that we should punish people who have been faithfully paying taxes all their lives is an obscenity.
Yet it was never completely ruled out -- despite the off-the-record briefings that have been doing the rounds for the last few weeks.
Thankfully, the elderly have been left alone, which really is the least we can do as a society and, in fairness, some of the sectors that took a hit were the ones that deserved it the most.
The Government Gulf Stream jet? That's gone.
The maximum wage for civil servants -- up to and including the office of President? A maximum €250,000, which is fair and brings us more into line with much bigger countries who pay their elite much less than we do.
In fact, despite the doom and gloom which we have been programmed to feel, when you look at this in a dispassionate way, there is a lot of common sense amidst the pain.
Sure, the way the TDs have yet again ensured that they will suffer less than the rest of us will set many people's teeth on edge, but who can honestly complain about government jets being offloaded and ministers being forced to endure the indignity of car-pooling?
In fact, the general reaction of most of the people I spoke to last night was almost one of bewilderment -- where was the smoking gun? Where was the landmine that was going to explode in our faces?
And, for sure, we all lose in this Budget -- tax bands have broadened to take in people who would previously been exempt, there are more hidden charges -- private healthcare insurance and so forth -- and none of us, even this time next year, will have as much cash as we do now. And we don't have a lot right now.
Yet, I can't help but feel it could have been even worse.
Maybe we had been so carefully conditioned by our political masters that this Budget would leave the country looking like Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' that we almost feel relieved -- after all, a punch in the face is better than a kick in the balls.
But in the midst of all this budgetary distraction we have missed the really big story of yesterday -- creepy John Gormless and his Department of the Environment yesterday introduced a ban on hunting game birds during the cold spell.
Nice to know where their priorities lie . . .