Lise Hand: Brian's Little Green Book gets the jazz-hand treatment
Published 25/11/2010 | 05:00
IF any citizens had managed to spend the past two years or so living in a mud-hut in a particularly dense and remote part of the Amazon Rainforest with no iPhone, electricity, broadband or wi-fi and then found themselves transported into the launch of the Government's four-year plan yesterday, they would've been forgiven for thinking that they were hearing a happy roar of a still-kicking Celtic Tiger.
It was standing-room only in the press centre at Government Buildings, as befits a nation at the epicentre of so much global attention, and the screens on the backdrop were flashing cheery slogans in good old Kelly green -- 'Plan for Recovery' and 'Securing Ireland's Future'.
And standing at a wooden podium flanked by two of his ministers, Brian Lenihan and John Gormley, the positive buzzwords were only flowing out of the Taoiseach.
"I think it's important in conveying to people why we can have hope and confidence in the future," he said of the new plan.
"I am confident that the talent and will and ability of our own people is going to make this a reality for us as a people. I'm confident of that, and I'm hopeful of the future, that this plan is another confidence-building measure, another signpost along the road toward national recovery," added Colgate Cowen, encircled by a ring of confidence.
But while the Amazonian traveller might have cheered and assumed that everything was still hunky-dory here in Celtic Tigerland, everyone else in the room and everybody watching the event live on television were all-too aware that this was 'Showtime', a determined display of synchronised jazz hands from the Two Brians.
For however the Taoiseach and Finance Minister talked up this four-year plan -- and they talked it up extremely slickly and expertly indeed -- it wasn't a blueprint for success, but a do-or-die attempt to rebuild some sort of scaffold around the smoking rubble of the Irish economy.
It was a green-covered Pandora's Box of cuts and taxes which will be unleashed on the populace over the next four Budgets.
And the returned wanderer would also be unaware from the outward display of unity of all the soaring tensions on that stage.
For Brian Cowen is embroiled in the fight of his political life as members of his own party have turned on the leader they welcomed with such acclaim when he was crowned Taoiseach in May 2008 and seems destined to face a messy heave some time after the December 7 Budget.
And while the Greens may be still officially in the Cabinet, they are also in the dog-house after their dramatic pulling of the coalition plug on Monday; and John Gormley must have found the press conference stage a chilly place to be yesterday afternoon -- as he left the stage afterwards he was roundly and pointedly ignored by the line of Fianna Fail ministers arrayed in seats on the platform.
And one minister stood out more than the others.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan turned out to be living proof that the only two things that rise in a recession are taxes and the hemlines of dresses.
She sat behind Lenihan seemingly unaware that more of her admirably shapely pins were on display than is normally decorous at such a serious event, prompting one disconcerted journalist seated in front of her to wonder: "Is this a hair-shirt budget or a short-skirt budget?"
But even the Tanaiste couldn't distract from the serious business in hand.
The launch of this plan wasn't simply a bit of a dog-and-pony show to convey the impression that Ireland Inc is still open for business. Far from it -- this document had to help convince the bond markets, the various masters of the universe, the global media, King Olli Rehn and our new IMF/ECB overlords that we have learned our lesson and that we now know Austerity isn't the name of a new perfume from Christian Dior.
Nor was this document sugar-coated with any sweeteners for any sector of society -- all the citizenry could hope for is that the cuts which would affect them would be medium-savage instead of savage-atrocious.
Of course, it was a compendium of euphemisms --for instance a property tax was gussied up as a Site Value Tax.
Though one can hardly expect the cheery title 'The National Recovery Plan' to have been replaced by a more realistic one such as 'We're Coming To Take Your Money Away, Ha-Ha, Hee-Hee, Ho-Ho'.
Thus, the language employed by the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister when unveiling this plan was very carefully chosen.
Cowen had obviously spent the previous night learning off some new words to add to his lexicon -- unfamiliar jargon such as "hope" and "confidence", while Lenihan showed sparks of his old bullish form.
The Taoiseach declared that this four-year plan was to "bring certainty to our people, to ensure they have hope for the future, to let them know that while we have a challenging time ahead, we can and we will pull through as we have in the past".
"It's a time for us to pull together as a people, time for us to confront this challenge and to do so in a united way," he added.
He was clearly aware of the importance of presenting his 'keep calm and carry on' face, as dangerous jitters still threaten Ireland's banjaxed banks, who have unfortunately acquired the economic equivalent of the Ebola virus as far as most of the EU is concerned.
And so Cowen was relentlessly upbeat, trying to connect with the genuinely depressed electorate in a way he has failed to do up to this point.
"This has been a great crisis of confidence, this crisis has really hit the people hard in many respects and people are trying to find a direction, they're trying to find a way forward, they're trying to plan for themselves and their families; it's a very human issue, a very human problem that's affecting many people," he admitted.
"But we have to confront the problem and move on -- today is about Ireland putting its best foot forward."
It was a strong performance at a crucial juncture -- too little, too late, of course, and begs the question why it has taken the Taoiseach until the final weeks or months to display some assured leadership to a wide audience.
And beside him Lenihan robustly defended the plan and the projected cuts and taxes it contained. And also in the great schoolyard fight tradition of getting your retaliation in first, he fired what must surely be the earliest opening shot of the next general election campaign.
Holding up Brian's Little Green Book, he stuck it to the opposition.
"This document is enormously important from a political point of view, because it sets out the realistic options open and available to this country," he said.
"This document has to be the basis of any sensible proposals in the next General Election -- anything else that's put forward is nonsense," he huffed.
Afterwards, the opposition parties were hanging around the plinth like planes stacked over Heathrow to have their say.
Labour's Joan Burton came out on her own, while Enda Kenny turned up mob-handed, surrounded by Richard and Leo and Michael Noonan.
They all picked holes in the plan but didn't tear it apart.
For everybody knows that the devil is in the detail and that the real Budget Hell awaits us in less than two weeks' time.
Never Mind. Sure the Amazon Rainforest is lovely this time of year, I hear.