Taoiseach apologises after savage Budget
Taoiseach Brian Cowen has unconditionally apologised for the state of the country as he defended the toughest budget in living memory.
A day after the embattled Government unveiled a €6bn cost-cutting package Mr Cowen said he was extremely sorry about the economic crisis.
Despite public support for the beleaguered Taoiseach at just 8pc, Mr Cowen vowed to fight on and lead the ruling Fianna Fail party into a general election in the new year.
"No one is more sorry. Is that understandable?," said Mr Cowen.
"No one is more sorry about this situation than I am, nobody."
Young families, the unemployed and middle income earners have been left holding the bill for Ireland's banking binge after the Government unleashed its latest austerity budget.
The most contentious aspects included cuts in child benefit, social welfare, and bringing lower earners into the tax base.
Opposition parties, trade union leaders, anti-poverty campaigners, children's rights organisations and others denounced the draconian package as an attack on the poor, middle income earners and the vulnerable.
But during a fiery interview on RTE Radio, Mr Cowen claimed the Government's economic policies had seen those on the top pay more and the least well off less.
When challenged that Fianna Fail showed no shame over the collapse of the economy, the Taoiseach said he was apologising unconditionally.
But he claimed decisions made while Finance Minister before the crisis were based on expert advice.
"I apologise unconditionally about the situation this country finds itself in. Don't think I'm equivocating in any way,"" he continued.
And he suggested he appeared arrogant if he tried to speak up and defend his Government and party.
Emergency Dail sittings will attempt to fast-track the budget reforms through the Oireachtas (parliament) this week and into the early days of the new year.
The coalition will then face the wrath of voters with a general election expected in February or March.
Mr Cowen said he will lead Fianna Fail into the poll, rejecting suggestions Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was plotting to overthrow him.
"We have a party that's going to fight this election under my leadership," Mr Cowen said.
Mr Lenihan also issued a strong defence of the budget.
Facing criticism live on RTE Radio during the traditional post-Budget question-and-answer session with listeners he said: "Everyone in this country has to contribute something in the present crisis."
"We did come to a position where our standard of living was one of the highest in the world and our wealth didn't justify it. We have to face up to that."
He defended the level of wage cuts for politicians revealed, claiming Mr Cowen's take-home pay will drop to €102,000, ministers to €88,000 and TDs to €51,000.
Meanwhile there were rowdy scenes in the Dail as Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the budget lacked conviction, confidence and compassion.
"Yesterday your salary was 13 times that of a person on the minimum wage, today it is 14 times the level of a person of the minimum wage," he told Mr Cowen.
"Do you consider that that's sensible, rational and equitable?"
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore queried why a single cent had not been taken off tax exiles from a measure announced in last year's budget, while carers, the blind, widows, and people who have lost their jobs will be cut for a second time in a year.
"There are two laws, Taoiseach. You are presiding over them. One law for tax exiles and there's another law for people who are dependent on social welfare payments," he said.
Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said the Budget was still not a done deal and could be defeated.
"The cuts to social welfare are savage and it is people on social welfare who are going to bear the brunt of this Budget," he said.