Saturday 17 February 2018

For the Last Last Show, Michael and Brendan have something for everyone in the audience

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, and Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, deliver the Budget on the steps of Government Buildings
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, and Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, deliver the Budget on the steps of Government Buildings
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

Brendan Howlin was giving it welly. He drew himself up to his, well, full height and launched a spear across the chamber.

"Our recovery, though not yet complete, is not only a justification of the policies we pursued for the past four and a half years, but a condemnation of the easy alternatives proffered by some. Who speaks of Syriza now?" he taunted the opposite benches who finally woke up from their sulk.

"Who speaks of Eamon Gilmore now?" countered Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher with commendable alacrity, as the chamber erupted into a babble of heckles. "They were re-elected, what chance have you got?" retorted Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.

This was indeed the €1.5bn question. For if this looked like an election Budget, sounded like an election Budget and gave away stuff like an election Budget, then surely it was precisely that. It was a meticulously calibrated siren-call to a beady-eyed electorate which was designed to show Fine Gael - and most crucially Labour - in the best possible sharing and caring light.

At least the brief outbreak of roaring and shouting at the Public Expenditure Minister had broken the preternatural calm which had pervaded Leinster House since early in the day. By noon, just two hours before the Budget speeches, the corridors still resembled the deck of the Marie Celeste.

Outside on Kildare Street, protest barriers and lines of gardaí idled in unison. The Dáil restaurant and bar were doing no extra business. The stairwells were devoid of hyper backbenchers.

It was deader than Coppers on Good Friday. The lack of anticipatory buzz was understandable, given that almost the entire contents of the Budget had been leaked in advance.

And doubtless the double tragedies of the weekend cast a pall over parliament, as they had over the country for the past few days. This was underlined by the set-piece of the Budget speeches being delayed to allow the Taoiseach and other party leaders and spokespeople to make statements on the horrific deaths in Carrickmines, and the murder of Garda Tony Golden in Omeath.

This was followed by a minute's silence, observed by all sides of the House, and everyone in the public gallery, and the sombre mood lingered, long after the Finance Minister rose to speak at about 2.30pm.

There were few groans or cheers as he enumerated the Budget tax reliefs and tax cuts and restoration of previous cuts. The only casualty was the fags, which were hit with a 50 cent hike. "This is the only tax increase in the Budget," Michael assured a silent chamber.

He made his unruffled way through his speech, departing only to enquire of a heckling Mattie McGrath, "Have you got a problem?" with his own brand of smiling menace. It was clearly a Late Late Show Budget, offering something for everyone in the audience. Everyone got a few quid, but nor was the dosh flying about like snuff at a wake.

Even the occasional arrogant flourish by Michael went unchecked by the Opposition. Unveiling a new tax credit for small businesses, he pledged, "I see this measure as a first step and further steps will be taken in future budgets, as resources permit." Or as the electorate permit, replied nobody.

Brendan Howlin, sporting a jaunty red tie in contrast to Michael's sombre silver and black squared number, was in much more bullish form. Understandable, given that he usually gets the sticky end of the lollipop, doling out tax cuts to the public sector.

But not this pre-election Budget; there was moolah for school buildings, the restoration of the Respite Care Grant, more gardaí. As the speech progressed, Brendan got increasingly feisty. And the Opposition finally roused themselves from their torpor, but their target wasn't fazed. "Fianna Fáil and Mattie, the ones who took the lifeboat before the ship sunk," sniped Brendan.

Labour were beside themselves. They clapped delightedly at the end, and then stampeded en masse to the exits to hustle onto the airwaves and claim credit for the good news. Although Ruairi Quinn paused long enough to unleash one parting shot: "Ceann Comhairle, can we have a recess so that the Fianna Fáil opposition can rewrite their lines?" he asked giddily. The Opposition did their best to kick holes in the Michael and Brendan's Last Hurrah, but really had little luck. Mary Lou had some advice for the Taoiseach. "You should go to the people. Don't hold off - Joan will get over it," she told an uncomfortable-looking Enda.

There was much talk from both sides about a new-fangled yoke called the Knowledge Development Box, which left no-one any the wiser. Pearse Doherty and Mick Wallace both did a bit of shouting and Clare Daly stuck the knife in with her usual skill. "There's a certain smugness around this debate which I find quite disquieting," she observed.

And she wasn't wrong. Homeless advocacy groups weren't happy with provisions for the crisis as winter beckons. But Fine Gael and Labour were enveloped in a warm glow of relief that the hairshirt is now in the back of the wardrobe. A few hours later, actor Chris O'Dowd was spotted with Fine Gael duo, fellow Roscommon native Frank Feighan and Senator Catherine Noone. "He heard there was a seat going in Roscommon," laughed Catherine. Sure they're all over the Moone.

Irish Independent

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