Sunday 11 December 2016

Piecemeal payback won't make this a fairer Ireland

New politics spread gains too thin as Government tries to keep all sides on board

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Finance Minister Michael Noonan before they delivered Budget 2017 outside Government Buildings yesterday. Photo: PA
Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Finance Minister Michael Noonan before they delivered Budget 2017 outside Government Buildings yesterday. Photo: PA

New politics, old Budget. Seven times in his Budget speech Michael Noonan used the word "risk" - but he certainly wasn't taking any.

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If he wanted to convince us that the days of 'boom and bust' are over then the Finance Minister succeeded. In their place we got 'Brexit and boring'.

This was a Budget that spread loose change like the loaves and fishes.

Unfortunately, though, many people will wake up hungry this morning, feeling they got a little but not a lot.

Mr Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe devised what could be called 'The Fiver Budget' because sharing is caring.

Treat everybody equal regardless of whether they work, sit at home all day or are retired.

This, was according to the Taoiseach, the way to "a fairer Ireland", while either unaware or ignoring the fact he stole the slogan from a Fianna Fáil election poster.

The problem with treating everybody equal now is that we're not all equal.

It's not that we should pit the young against the old, the working against the unemployed or even the rich against the poor.

But in the words of Aristotle: "The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal."

The economic crash devastated every section of Irish society but it hit some worse than others. It left families without homes, men and women without jobs and children without hope.

Then there was the so-called 'squeezed middle' who were perhaps lucky enough to keep their jobs, swallow their salary cuts and stump up colossal amounts of extra tax.

They took untold punishment from the Troika, struggled against uncertainty and yet quietly kept the show on the road long enough for the winds of austerity to change.

Now things are on the up again, albeit "in a world that has more risks than usual".

And the question facing the Government was who should benefit. Mr Noonan, Mr Donohoe and their many cooks decided to try lift all boats in one go.

There was a housing package, a childcare subsidy and bags of money to reduce waiting lists.

They raise lots of questions. Will the €20,000 for first-time buyers just push prices up? Why should worker parents lose out on the subsidy just because granny minds the kids? Is pumping more money into health not like throwing it into a black hole?

At the same time they are noble ideas aimed at bettering society for everybody.

Then there was the taxation and social welfare measures that affect our individual pockets. And this is where many people will feel aggrieved, particularly those who shouldered the burden of recession.

They want to see homelessness housed, young people get on the property ladder, pupil teacher ratio reduced and older people live comfortably.

However, they will also see themselves high on the list of people who should get a personal payback.

Yesterday that amounted to €5. OAPs came away with their own €5 on the pension, a reduction in prescription charges and an extra €24 Christmas bonus.

The unemployed got another fiver. And even sheep got €10. On the surface it's fair but the often silent middle class will feel hard done by.

It may have been better to focus exclusively on services rather than offer a piecemeal to everybody.

And we're not too far away from an election. The grey vote counts more than any.

But the vision of this Government is blurred by its varied sets of ideologies.

To be fair to the ministers, they did well to construct a Budget that will get through the Dáil and maintain stability. That in itself is probably the biggest achievement of Budget 2017.

It wasn't easy. Paschal Donohoe has worked 18-hour days for a month.

He even acknowledged: "Many believed the Government would not still be in place by the time Budget Day arrived, and yet here we are." In other words, we are where we are.

Irish Independent

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