Lise Hand: Hostile enemies circle for Lone Ranger and Tonto's last stand
Oh the rumours in Leinster House were flying about like underwear at a Tom Jones concert.
HERE'S a joke. Tonto and Lone Ranger were on the trail one day when they suddenly found themselves in a canyon totally surrounded by hostile Indians with a forest of bows and arrows pointed at their heads.
The Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said: "You've been a great companion through thick and thin, and we've had some good times and bad times together. We'll go down in a hail of fire together."
Tonto turned to the Lone Ranger and said, "What's this 'we' business, Paleface?"
Well yesterday it was Cowen's Last Stand.
The Lone Taoiseach and his Tonto finance minister circled the wagons for one final time as the hills on all sides of them bristled with the enemy.
Inside Leinster House the opposition were sharpening their tomahawks while noisy war-parties of protesters massed outside the gates.
After a Budget which had sprung more leaks than the thawing pipes of domestic houses all over Ireland, the Day of Reckoning was finally nigh -- and everyone reckoned it was going to be the roughest €6bn hairshirt ever donned by a beleaguered electorate.
There's usually an anticipatory buzz about the place on Budget Day -- backbench TDs throw happy shapes around the corridors, looking forward to a triumphant return to their constituencies at the weekend to bask in the glory of distributed Budget freebies, hand-outs, goodies, grants and every pot-hole filled before Christmas.
But not this year -- in fact, this is the fourth wielding of the axe in the past three years. Instead the mood was one of most unseasonal despondency.
Even the usual Budget Day lunchtime repast of turkey and ham was missing from the restaurant menu.
There was little Christmas cheer in evidence inside Leinster House yesterday -- instead the siege mentality was sending the denizens into a frenzy of paranoia.
By lunchtime, (B-time minus two hours) huddles of frantic senators were accosting journalists on the corridor.
"Have ye heard that we're for the chop?" implored aghast members of the Upper House.
For a rumour had whipped around the building that the Government had deliberated in its last-gasp cabinet meeting that the axe was about to fall on the Seanad and that its fate would be decided with a referendum on the same day as the General Election.
Oh the rumours were flying about like underwear at a Tom Jones concert.
There were whispers about threatened resignations and rebellions. And tattle about backbenchers getting windy over voting for the most draconian Budget in the history of the State.
At precisely 3.45pm, Brian Lenihan took his seat in the packed Dail chamber. It was standing-room only in the public gallery; it was daggers-drawn for seats on the press gallery.
Every deputy was present and correct in the chamber, and large numbers of anxious senators had taken their places at the top of the room to await their fate.
Even the distinguished visitors' gallery was crammed with interested parties such as ex-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and British ambassador Julian King.
As the finance minister rose to speak, thick copies of Lenny's Little Book of Cuts and Taxes were hastily distributed around the chamber, and heads bent to see what (unleaked) horrors lurked within.
But it turned out to be a tricky, slippery sort of document. The measures wriggled and slipped like mercury.
Brian Lenihan preferred not to go into some of the more stringent measures in any great detail, referring all interested parties to the appendices at the back of the book -- "further details of the changes are set out in the Summary of Budget Measures," he pointed out on several occasions during his 45-minute speech.
There was the odd surprise -- changing the stamp duty to a flat rate of 1pc on all residential properties up to the value of €1m, and 2pc on homes above that.
"If this system had been in place instead of the previous volatile one, it would have lessened the effect on tax revenue of the booms and bust in the market," explained Brian. (In other words, it didn't happen on my watch, boss. Don't blame me).
After he was finished, he received a polite ovation.
Over on the Fine Gael side, gleeful deputies egged on the sombre Fianna Fail backbenches to give a standing ovation, but nobody was going to cheerlead for this Budget -- in fact a handful of Fianna Fail soldiers failed to applaud the minister at all.
And then up rose Fine Gael's finance Rottweiler, Michael Noonan, and he wasted no time in sinking his teeth into the Government.
"This Budget is the Budget of a puppet government doing what they've been told to do by the IMF, the EC and the ECB. This Budget is in an ironic way, a fitting tribute to this failed administration. Fianna Fail like the Bourbons have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing and are destined to continue their mistakes in this, their last Budget," he began.
Michael lashed into a sullen Brian Lenihan, and read out the opening sentence of the minister's letter to the IMF and European Central Bank, describing what he called his "obsequious" missive as "an absolute indictment of your own policies in both of the letters which you wrote to our new masters in Europe and in Washington," he blasted.
"They sound like confessions beaten out of you that you'd read in a thriller. It's like as if they water-boarded you on Merrion Street and made you sign the letters," he added.
And woe betide anyone who took him on -- an incessantly barracking Paul Gogarty was silenced when Michael looked at him across the chamber.
"Is this a 'hit me now with this child in my arms' intervention?" he sniped to roars of laughter from his colleagues.
There was no stopping him.
"The dream of restoring a lost Camelot is always a huge mistake. Bertie Ahern's Ireland is dead and gone and it will never be restored," he declared.
And he poured utter scorn on the bizarre decision to take €20 off the child benefit of the third child in every family, as opposed to the €10 reduction for other children.
"Minister, what have you got against third children?" he asked scathingly.
"Did some third child beat you up coming home from school when you were a young fella?" he added, earning himself a round of applause from his side of the House.
But it was a rare moment of levity in a bitter, downbeat, angry day.
There was little to laugh about.
Even Labour's Joan Burton seemed too dispirited to turn in her usual high-decibel harangue.
Sinn Fein's newbie deputy and finance spokesman Pearse Doherty simply stood and shouted for his allocated time.
Outside the gates, the hardy protesters braved the chill and banged on pots, sounding oddly like a large gaggle of irate Hare Krishna, minus the samosas.
There were few glimmers of job-creating hope in this Budget, apart from the déjà-vu of a Government apparently hell-bent on trying to revive the property market.
Granted, politicians are taking pay-cuts and some ministers will be swapping their Mercs for Corollas.
But there was an overwhelming feeling about the place that the only equitable thing about this Budget, is that it's equally bad for everyone.
Closing his speech, Brian Lenihan concluded: "Today's Budget is our first step in ensuring that we can get back firmly on our own feet."
But how did we get to the point of €6bn budgets in the first place?
And what's this 'we' business, Paleface?