NO matter how much roaring and shouting and in-house, cross-party bickering and back-stabbing goes on during the fraught run-up to any Budget, the rumbling sound emanating from the Dail chamber on Budget Day is inevitably the sound of coalition wagons being circled.
For here in the front row yesterday afternoon, sitting side-by-side like two little merry sandboys were Ministers Ruairi Quinn and James Reilly, looking for all the world like they had lots of confidence in each other.
But then again, Budget Day is all about presentation. And this was a slippery sort of Budget, full of sneaky cuts and mean-spirited taxes, imbued with the spirit of the sleeveen.
All the nasty stuff had been leaked carefully in advance, to soften the blow of hearing lots of bad news all at once. Moreover, both Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin's speeches skimped on detail, leaving it to the relevant ministers to deliver the minutiae of the cuts and taxes at their respective post-Budget press conferences.
Across the Dail chamber yesterday afternoon, Opposition deputies speed-leafed through the columns of figures and looked for the booby traps, the stealth slashes.
It had all been a muted affair. The 'Noolin' speeches were greeted by silence all on sides of the room – for still vivid in the minds of every politician present was the unhappy memory of the late Brian Lenihan being cheered to the rafters by the faithful Soldiers of Destiny after his 2008 Budget speech, even as the doodlebugs of destitution were wailing down upon the country.
Four years on, and not a soul inside or outside Leinster House harbours any delusions that the hard rain which still hammers the land is about to cease anytime soon. Nor did anybody believe that there would be many rays of sunshine on offer in this sixth austerity budget.
But still it was slippery. It didn't drop one big bomb on the family home – it was more akin to toxic tendrils of smoke which creep under the doors of the house, wrapping around the children and the mum and dad – some of its deadly effects were immediately apparent, others would take longer to absorb.
There was quiet tension on the corridors of Leinster House yesterday morning. Tales had trickled out of pre-Budget power struggles between Fine Gael and Labour ministers over which sectors of society should shoulder the biggest burden – the choices were stark, God knows, as all the low-hanging fruit had long been plucked in previous hairshirt Budget outings.
And sure enough, there were a lot of long-faced Labour deputies slumped in their seats in the chamber, and barely a "hear-hear" out of them during the two speeches. As soon as Brendan Howlin sat down, the Labour benches evaporated like early-morning fog, leaving a few glum faces in place.
Fianna Fail's finance spokesman Michael McGrath made no bones about reminding the Labour deputies about pre-election pledges that cutting child benefit would be "a red-line issue" for the party. "Families were told child benefit is safe under Labour – it took out newspaper ads, it erected posters warning people of the dangers of voting for Fine Gael," he said.
But really, it was Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald who struck the deepest blow, and nailed the Government with precision. Surveying the quartet sitting side-by-side on the front bench – Enda, Eamon, Michael and Brendan – she let fly. "The same old boys' club culture remains," she declared. "I can see it in my mind's eye, the Economic Management Council – a very grandiose title," she added. "I can see An Taoiseach, An Tanaiste and the Ministers for Financial Misery. Four men in a huddle, each reassuring each other, to borrow Minister Howlin's words today, that you'll 'get through these difficult times'. Well, good for you," she said witheringly.
Across the chamber, the four men sat straight-faced. But Mary Lou had a point. Do they have any real sense of how everyone, across all the social classes, is feeling the harsh sting of a thousand cuts?
A hike on a bottle of wine, a PRSI stealth tax, a tenner off the child benefit, a property tax – nobody is exempt, everyone is hard-pressed.
The four men can slither and dodge all they like – but the simple message to the people is: we're not going to nail ye to the cross, but here's a hammer, some bits of wood, and a few nails – now go and assemble the crucifix yourself.