Saturday 23 February 2019

John Drennan: Brian's straight face the real achievement

The Budget from Hell will lead us into the economic wilderness with no route back, says John Drennan

John Drennan

IT says everything about how Ireland has not been governed that we are astonished when a politician actually does what he has said he will do.

Last week, however, when our Cabinet of the political undead had their latest stab at saving our zombie economy, Brian Lenihan surprised us all by unveiling a can of worms whose contents matched up to what it said on the tin.

Of course, the caress of the hot breath of the IMF on the back of the minister's neck did provide a compelling rationale for the new dispensation.

But though the world has changed utterly, the one political trait Fianna Fail has not lost is the alchemist's political art of hiding in full view.

In a classic example of FF's patented three-card trick, we were told this would be the Budget from Hell where the minister would inflict a great vengeance on the poor and the sick in order to save the rich.

What we actually got was a Budget that left us going no-where beyond our current economic wilderness.

Of course, our Pollyanna of a finance minister was having no truck with the false gods of negativity.

Instead, this fiscal blithe spirit who was about to cut €4bn without making a dent in the current deficit informed us this was the last of the tough budgets.

As the Dad's Army-style rhetoric of "one last push" concluded with the claim that the corner had been "turned" and "the plan is working", the capacity of the finance minister to utter this nonsense and keep a straight face was quite shocking.

Our initial response may have been that you couldn't make this stuff up, but unfortunately he was.

Sadly, as is so often the case with the patented "no problem" Lenihan school of political fantasy, ultimately nothing could conceal the hollow centre of a Budget that will achieve nothing outside of a temporary escape from national bankruptcy.

The finance minister insouciantly claimed that this Budget would represent a transformation in our fortunes after two years of running to stand still.

But Mr Lenihan's claim that being in a position to "stabilise" the deficit was "the next key milestone in recovery" actually meant that we were still stuck on a recession treadmill where an increasingly exhausted society is still running to stand still.

The air was also rather let out of Mr Lenihan's bonhomie by the insistence of Mr Cowen and a posse of senior ministers that we were still at the edges of a scenario where pay cheques for public sector workers would "bounce".

Not for the first time, the conflict of evidence between an ailing Taoiseach and a bumptious finance minister left us wondering who was right.

The insistent smell of figures being stewed was intensified by the Taoiseach's anxiety to evade Enda Kenny's queries about why the €6bn that will be needed to recapitalise Anglo Irish Bank had not been included in the budgetary figures.

Sadly, as Kenny lacerated a Government whose sole "big idea" last week was to "reduce the price of drink", the sole response of Mr Cowen was to engage in his usual invisible man act. The Taoiseach did subsequently make a lifeless contribution to the finance debate, but when it comes to the man whose charismatic leadership style brings the last days of Brezhnev to mind they would have been as well sending out a junior minister.

In spite of Mr Lenihan's verbal dexterity, it swiftly became clear that this Budget contained more hostages to fortune than even our banking system.

The finance minister may claim he had drafted a framework for national recovery, but the best result we can hope to retrieve from this Department of Finance-inspired accountancy exercise is that it will appease the savage inscrutable gods of the world's bond markets and save us from a home grown Greek tragedy.

In spite of all those medals that were hastily awarded by The Irish Times, there was no reform to be found in this hasty last-ditch collation of shreds and patches.

Instead, a Government that always ditches the tough choices effectively dumped the McCarthy report, and whilst we did get public sector pay cuts, the incompetence of the Government and their trade union doppelgangers means that these have been secured at the expense of real public sector reform for a decade.

We initially thought nothing epitomised its politics of gesture without action more than the decision to cut the pay of judges by not giving the beaks any more pay rises.

But even this version of Fianna Fail-style radicalism was surpassed by a provision on tax exiles that almost left "I'm all right Jack" O'Connor looking impressive as the defeated trade union leader when he noted this section was so thought out the minister could not even gauge how much revenue would be raised through it.

In fairness the minister was utterly successful in one key objective, for the massacre of the public sector malcontents and our idle youth was an exquisitely calibrated political exercise that was designed to provoke generalised misery as distinct from outright revolt.

Our incompetent fiscal masters may have gone after the public sector, the idle young and those in social welfare in 2009.

But as is so often the case with this Government, the real trouble was being stored up for 2010 when the minister will put his "hand into your pocket" to extract property and water charges.

For now nothing epitomised our woebegone state more than the spectacle of the finance minister proudly claiming that he was following similar policies to de Valera in the Thirties.

Like our Taoiseach, Mr Lenihan may see Fianna Fail's old sleight of hand as setting some template for modern Ireland, but he would be wise to remember Mr de Valera's economic theories cast us into an economic wilderness for four decades.

Ultimately our response to the Budget will be guided by the wise old cynics of the Fianna Fail backbenchers.

Last week, their greatest concern was to find a balance between the dangers of being seen giving a standing ovation to the Budget by their enraged constituents with the need to appease the savage ego of their minister.

Happily the lads finally came up with a perfect FF- style compromise and gave Mr Lenihan a sitting ovation.

Sadly, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that, rather like their finance minister, in even doing that they were being implausibly optimistic.

Sunday Independent

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