News Martina Devlin

Friday 22 August 2014

Martina Devlin: Noonan's honeyed words can't ease burden of despair and despondency

Published 06/12/2012 | 17:00

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FIRST the good news. If you're already well-heeled, no need to worry about where your next pair of Italian leather shoes is coming from. But – and there's no genteel way to put this – it's cobblers to those in the low and middle brackets.

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Once again, middle and low-income families are seeing their living standards eroded at the expense of high-earners, who continue to be protected. And now older people have been targeted, too.

Principle of fairness? Budget 2013 didn't really score there, despite changing the pension regime to draw in money from wealthier pensioners. How about hope for the future? No, Budget 2013 definitely didn't tick that box.

Unfortunately, those twin failures show the country is not just broke but broken.

Austerity isn't working, and neither is politics where it's business as usual in the Leinster House Hideaway. The divide between the people and the political class yawns wider than ever following the coalition's second Budget.

There was nothing upbeat about it. Michael Noonan might just as well have been reading from the Book of Lamentations.

He strayed dangerously close to Brian Lenihan "we have turned a corner" territory when he said: "We are now well on the road to recovery, so let's look to the future with confidence."

We're so busy turning corners, we might just be going round in circles. Little wonder nobody can catch a glimpse of that much-vaunted light at the end of the tunnel.

We heard a lot of huffing and puffing, both from the Finance Minister and from Brendan Howlin, about protecting the vulnerable in society. Hot air, ministers.

Perhaps they could have got away with it if they had pulled a rabbit out of the hat – something to convince us that every sector of society is expected to play its part towards national recovery.

Neither minister is much of a magician, judging by yesterday's performances in the Dail. Doing away with unvouched expenses for politicians, reducing the leaders' allowance by 10pc and cutting severance payments for ministers didn't add up to a three-card trick.

Not when there wasn't a whisper from either of them about the extraordinarily generous pensions to retired politicians.

While the initiatives that were outlined to reform gilded conditions in the political stratum are welcome, they didn't go far enough. People aren't interested in tinkering, they want slashing and burning.

Meanwhile, the gap yawns between two distinct groups in society: the targeted and the untouchables. And the targeted have very little left to give.

Those who were just about making ends meet will now stray into the red. And those who were in the red will now stray into unmanageable debt.

How can it be any other way, with increased motoring charges, cuts to children's allowance and jobseekers' benefit, higher prescription charges, the removal of PRSI exemption for low earners – and, above all, that senseless property tax?

As for the mansion tax, it's a sop. It will raise a pittance compared with the potential take if tax hikes were introduced for €100,000 plus income-earners.

Of course people accept current spending levels are unsustainable, to use that word to which we have all grown accustomed in recent years. Nobody expected a giveaway Budget.

However, introducing a property tax at this stage of Ireland's fortunes – make that misfortunes – is unreasonable. Especially in tandem with the cumulative impact of so many stealth taxes, not to mention five previous austerity budgets.

Almost 170,000 mortgages are in arrears or have been restructured – one in five home loans. Taxing something that's an albatross rather than an asset is irrational.

Mr Noonan tried to tell us the worst was over – not credible, with a new property tax. Incidentally, the party that vows to axe it can expect votes at the next general election. Just as the parties that introduced it can expect a grudge to be borne.

Early in his speech, the Finance Minister referred to the "despair, despondency and lack of self-worth" which the coalition found in the country, on taking office.

Despair, despondency and lack of self-worth have only intensified in the intervening period. They act as an indictment of this government. It may have a plan, but it's not visible to the man and woman on the street.

Finally, I was convinced I must be hearing things when Mr Howlin referenced Phil Hogan's commitment to local government reform. Would this be the same Phil Hogan who introduced the household charge, prelude to the property tax, and has just been photographed enjoying a drink in a luxury Qatar hotel?

Nothing wrong with the Environment Minister attending a climate change conference. But timing is everything. And a taxpayer-funded trip to Doha was a clanger, when others back home may be unable to take a holiday again until after Ireland exits the bailout programme. If even then.

Imagine: those hellfire-and-brimstone sermons some of us were raised on have proved right all along. They warned we were living in a vale of tears and had better get used to it.

Michael Noonan said more or less the same yesterday. Don't be fooled by the sugar-coating.

Irish Independent

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