THE Great Debate began with the Taoiseach reading from a prepared script. His script had not been circulated to TDs in advance. So that curious little man, Alan Shatter, a Fine Gael TD, chose to intervene.
"Never mind organising an economy, he cannot even organise his script," said Shatter of Brian Cowen.
Shatter had just made an unintended point: everything about the debate was scripted, pre-ordained, along nakedly political lines, to such an extent that listening to it was enough to eventually induce a headache.
Brian Hayes, another Fine Gael TD, was later to observe that the Dail has been a "doss house" for the past 10 years: the Great Debate has proven one thing -- it is still a doss house.
Ireland will run out of money in June, which means there will be nothing left to pay the wages in the public sector or the dole of the unemployed, and much in between.
I expect the IMF to be in before then, possibly by February. Alternatively, its equivalent, Germany, will assume full control under the guise of its permanent bailout fund, into which we will soon be dipping.
When that happens, Brian Cowen, or whoever takes his place, will be reduced to the role of a line manager, scurrying back and forth to Brussels for instruction to impose the latest dogma.
It is nothing short of an indictment of our political system, of its practitioners, who are deluded, and who stubbornly -- criminally -- still refuse to look beyond the limitation of their own self-interest.
In the Dail, they reside in what I like to call 'dreamland', a state where they can make each other feel important, relevant even, when they are not -- anything but. This doesn't make them any less dangerous, of course.
The Great Debate, ostensibly, was to be about the macro-economic and fiscal outlook.
Here, then, is a contribution from would-be minister Michael Ring, from Mayo, currently Fine Gael's spokesman for Social Protection: "The N5 from Westport to Longford must be improved."
And from Seymour Crawford (FG), Cavan-Monaghan: "As a supporter of the Monaghan General Hospital project in Co Monaghan, I note the county has been the guinea pig for the removal of services to local people."
Alongside the insight of Hayes, there were, of course, some worthwhile contributions from a handful of TDs with a brain in gear: Michael Creed of Fine Gael comes to mind, Willie O'Dea of Fianna Fail, his colleague, John McGuinness, and a few others.
But mostly it was depressingly familiar stuff, which takes us back to Alan Shatter.
When various interruptions had died down, the would-be minister got to his feet again: "On a second point of order, and I will be very brief . . ." he said.
But the Ceann Comhairle interjected: "We cannot set out to disrupt the proceedings of the House in this manner."
Shatter, however, would not be silenced. His tone became more
mocking: "I wonder if we will be joined by the Minister for the Environment . . . who was so interested in consensus."
And so it continued.
Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan was informed, at one stage, that he had one minute of his allotted time remaining. "I have one full minute left? There is not much damage one can do in a minute." He meant political damage.
It was the Labour TD Liz McManus, later, who best summed up the Taoiseach's script. She said it read like an extract from the Little Book of Calm. She was spot on. But the contribution of her own leader was not much better.
The would-be Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, a scheduled notable speaker, said nothing of interest. He used the debate to set out Fine Gael's position, which, in effect, is this: FG will not commit to €15bn in cuts and tax hikes because it might cost it a few votes.
It was left to finance spokesman Michael Noonan to camouflage the naked politics. He did so by citing different growth projections from Davy Stockbrokers and the ESRI which, depending on which you believe, would see a "correction" of either €20bn or €9bn.
But he did not say how Fine Gael would "correct" to the tune of either €20bn or €9bn, or, indeed, €15bn: he did not say because to say might cost Fine Gael a few votes.
The media has presented the contribution of Eamon Gilmore with great fanfare, as if he had, at last, outlined in detail what Labour would do. Gilmore did anything but. He is still playing hide and seek.
By and large, the media is in love with Eamon Gilmore. What is there not to love? Try this, from Brian Lenihan . . .
Gilmore's proposed 48 per cent income tax rate would, Lenihan said, raise just €410m next year.
Mr Lenihan said: "If one thing is abundantly clear, it is that a 48 per cent tax rate, in addition to the current levy and PRSI systems, would effectively mean an effective marginal tax rate of 62 per cent . . .
"The initial figure of €410m would decline over the four-year period as higher income tax earners, faced with income tax and impositions of tax from the State in excess of 60 per cent, flee the jurisdiction."
On and on it went, over two days.
It was, I would say, the following exchange which perhaps best sums up the pointlessness of it all, involving three of the so-called heaviest hitters in the Dail, the people who like to think that they will be running the country for the next 10 years.
They are: Dermot Ahern, the Minister for Justice, aspirant Fianna Fail leader and political bootboy; Pat Rabbitte, former Labour leader, would-be minister and all-round smart ass, and, Joan Burton, Labour Finance spokeswoman; would-be minister and, well, (let's be nice) Guardian reader.
Ahern: "There is a gap of billions of euro to be filled. It is not rocket science. There is a gap between what we spend and what we take in of €19bn."
Rabbitte: "Sometimes those guys are unreal."
Ahern: "It is up to people like the deputies opposite to bring forward proposals in that respect."
Rabbitte: "They have brought the country to ruin and then the minister has the cheek to lecture us about rocket science."
An Ceann Comhairle: "Allow the minister to continue."
Richard Bruton (Fine Gael): "How many proposals has the minister put forward so far in his speech?"
An Ceann Comhairle: "The minister is in possession."
Ahern: "The Labour Party produced proposals yesterday . . . In regard to capital spending, it proposes a €2.5bn cut. It does not say which projects it will cancel but perhaps we will hear in due course. In regard to current spending, it talks about payroll reductions."
Rabbitte: "This guy is unreal."
An Ceann Comhairle: "The minister without interruption."
Burton: "The Guardian praised the proposal yesterday."
Ahern: "The truth is bitter."
An Ceann Comhairle: "We must have one speaker at a time."
Burton: "The lead article in the Guardian yesterday praised the proposal."
An Ceann Comhairle: "Will the deputy show respect for the member in possession?"
Ahern: "As I stated, Ireland is one of the most successful countries in the world in attracting foreign direct investment."
Burton: "The Government has brought the International Monetary Fund to the door and ruined the country. Bond spreads are at seven per cent this morning."
Ahern: "The problem with imposing a 62 per cent marginal rate of tax on the executives . . . is that many companies considering doing business here will view marginal rates of tax from the point of view of their executives. When they find that individuals will have to pay an income tax rate of 62 per cent, they will go elsewhere."
Burton: "The minister clearly cannot do tax arithmetic. That is the reason he is so incompetent."
An Ceann Comhairle: "I ask Deputy Burton to restrain herself."
Rabbitte: "The minister is innumerate."
Burton: "The minister is innumerate."