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Dynamic Duo's Spring Statement gets a wintry welcome in Dáil

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Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein deputy for Donegal South-West

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein deputy for Donegal South-West

Tom Burke

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein deputy for Donegal South-West

Any political animals emerging yesterday from a protracted hibernation may have understandably ended up feeling most confused. Inside the Dáil some class of a yoke called a Spring Statement was under way, but to the casual observer the whole palaver looked and sounded suspiciously like a Winter Budget - with unseasonably gelid temperatures outside.

The Spring Statement is a new addition to the calendar of political set-pieces, and nobody was quite sure how to approach the semi-exotic beast. Because it was neither fiscal fish nor financial fowl - nobody was going to be either richer or poorer as a result of the pronouncements by the coalition's economic Batman and Robin, Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.

Therefore a just-awakened political animal may well have been moved to enquire why on earth there was a need for a Spring Statement at all, at all. The answer was simple enough - as Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty observed beadily to the Dynamic Duo across the chamber, "You needn't be a bloodhound to smell an election in the air".

The Donegal deputy was, of course, correct. This was the opening salvo in what's destined to be a long, gruelling ground war leading up to the general election. Having become cheesed-off with being blamed for everything bar global warming, the Coalition is determined to woo back disenchanted voters.

And so the Spring Statement was in effect a bout of electoral foreplay which flirted with the notion of a Big Bang Budget later this year which will satisfy large swathes of the electorate.

However, the sort of frisson of expectation which traditionally surrounds Budget Day was noticeably absent in Leinster House in advance of the Spring Statement being sprung. The Government benches were full and cheerful. The Opposition benches less full but exuding a distinct sullen air, the occupants fearing - not without good reason - that they were about to be treated to a symphony of self-congratulation (both pianissimo and fortissimo) with a deafening chorus of trumpets and threats. And sure enough, the trumpets and threats were loud and clear. The Finance Minister reminded all that in his first three budgets, "I did not increase income tax or USC charges and at the first available opportunity in budget 2015, I used available resources to reduce income tax and USC."

And the trumpet was immediately followed by a threat. The policies proposed by the Opposition, he warned, "will increase taxes, increase expenditure, increase debt, lower growth rates, reduce tax buoyancy and cost jobs".

Their dastardly proposals "will again cause the economy to spiral downwards," he cautioned. The Opposition wasn't buying into this Spring Statement lark one bit. In his speech, Brendan Howlin chirpily predicted having more money in the next Budget to spend on big-ticket areas such as Education, Health and social Welfare. "It will allow us to target enhancements in key public services…" he proclaimed, but was promptly interrupted by Michael Healy Rae. "And buy an election," the Kerryman suggested naughtily.

Inevitably, the Opposition lined up to take pot-shots at the whole Spring Thing. Fianna Fáil's finance spokesman Michael McGrath reckoned, "People who have been hearing about the Spring Statement for months will be left scratching their heads wondering what it was all about".

Pearse Doherty was in agreement, dismissing it as "a damp squib". But then, for fear anyone might think he was in harmony with Michael McGrath, he managed to put the boot into both the Coalition and Fianna Fáil with one mighty kick. "What we have heard today is tax-cutting McCreevy-style, but with less logic and delivered in a Limerick accent," he sniped. "Fine Gael and Labour are just Fianna Fáil in reverse."

Everyone was piling in. Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher was up on his Twitter high horse. "It should read spin statement. Government is engaged in self-congratulatory nonsense. It will rain on this charade," he tweet-thundered.

Independent TD Clare Daly was equally scathing. "A backslappers' convention," she snorted. Alas for the Technical Group, Noonan and Howlin had high-tailed it out of the chamber, having withstood almost two-and-a-half hours at the coal-face of criticism.

In truth, the two lads weren't bothered about the Opposition's displeasure. The Spring Statement wasn't for the delectation of the far side of the chamber. It was the first course in the forthcoming bill of fare to be set before the electorate. And given that when it came to actual substance which an Opposition could get its teeth into, the whole shebang was all sizzle and no steak, stuffed with more spin than a field full of windmills.

Moreover, behind the trumpets, the threat was clearly audible: Ye can hand the stabilised ship over to a new crew at your peril - for then there'll be a lone bugler playing 'The Last Post' as we head for the rocks again. And then don't come moaning to us that we didn't warn ye in the Spring.

Irish Independent