A safe, boring budget is what we need as the drama of Brexit looms

A safe, boring budget is what we need as the drama of Brexit looms
Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, attending the DCU Brexit Institute at Dublin Airport. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday September 16, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

Brave man, Paschal. That was my initial reaction when I heard the minister for finance saying that his mind was made up, a month before his budget, that there would be no tax breaks this year.

I waited for the heavens to open. I assumed the opposition would be out in their droves, and that there’d be Government backbenchers, maybe even a couple of Independent ministers, disowning their minister.

Before long, we’d be told to relax; it was only a bit of kite-flying, and no final decisions had been taken on the budget yet.

But even as some further details have begun to emerge — even as it’s now being reported that we pensioners are going to have to do without our €5 increase — there has been an uncanny silence. No opposition reaction, no hysteria from the vested interests, no muttering from the rest of us.

An opinion poll in one of the Sunday papers said that a significant majority of us would prefer some additional public spending, and would be prepared to forgo tax cuts in favour of investment.

So what does this mean?

The Irish electorate is more mature than many of our politicians. If you take us into your confidence — if you tell it as it is — we’ll respect that. But politicians are more likely to offer knee-jerk responses to economic developments.

And we all understand the situation we’re in now. Our economy has been doing well — better for some than for others, that’s for sure — but none of us want the progress we have made battered by Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s people might choose to destroy their futures, but there is no reason why we should wait to be collateral damage.

So when the minister for finance decides that his priority is to protect the economy, and especially the sectors most likely to be affected, most of us understand, and accept, that it’s the right thing to do. In the budgets of the last few years, the fiver a week has been almost a given, and I haven’t seen any politicians shoot up in the polls as a result of it.

Which is not to say, of course, that this year’s budget is going to be popular. We get it: we understand that we have to be careful, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to enjoy it.

And especially since this is almost certainly the last budget before a general election, Paschal may be doing the right thing, but he’s also doing a somewhat risky thing.

And even before the general election, there’ll be four very hard-fought by elections in the autumn. If the Government fails to win a fair share of them, the experts will line up to explain how Paschal got it so badly wrong in the budget.

There’ll even be some conspiracy theorising that he did it deliberately to make life difficult for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

So the opinion polls throughout the autumn will be closely watched and analysed, with a view to deciding whether Paschal was right or wrong. Because you can be right economically, and wrong politically.

When I was in politics, two things gave me a knot in my stomach: One was opinion polls, the other was budget day.

Only two of the newspapers published regular opinion polls back then, and they kept them secret until the last minute. There was no social media to spill the beans, and if you wanted an advance briefing, you had to employ a wide range of subterfuges.

I will carry to my grave the methods I used, but it really mattered to me that my political principals heard the news — good or bad — from me first. I was always desperate to know how my own crowd was doing, and I always took it personally if we had gone down a point or two.

In the mid-1980s, when Labour was taking its usual hammering for dong some heavy-lifting with an economic mess that Fianna Fáil had created, I got the opinion poll and it showed us at a miserable 3%. “At least,” the late Frank Cluskey was quoted as saying, “we’re still within the margin of error.”

But budget day was an occasion of sheer terror for anyone who worked for government in those days.

There are no secrets now, really, but, back then, the budget was supposed to be a closed book until it was announced in the Dáil by the finance minister.

Any member of the government who leaked its secrets would almost certainly lose his or her job, and woe betide any government adviser (like your humble servant) who would even express an opinion about what might be in it.

Budget negotiations (the ones involving coalition governments, anyway) often went on until the small hours on budget day, and I have a dim recollection of bits of the then minister for finance Alan Dukes’s speech being written in pencil — it had to be furiously typed up as he read it aloud in the Dáil chamber.

It was believed that budget leaks could, in and of themselves, affect the economy.

For example, a hint of credit control could lead to a flight of capital; a suggestion of significant price increases could lead to massive nationwide hoarding. That was the theory, anyway.

THE secrecy, and the resultant drama (most of it unnecessary), meant the budget announcement could have catastrophic and immediate political repercussions.

The Labour Party lost several of its backbenchers after its first budget in the 1983-87 government, and, earlier in the decade, then taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald had lost the confidence of the entire Dáil, over a couple of unexpected items in the budget of his finance minister, John Bruton.

Nowadays, you’d struggle to remember what was in a recent budgets. Some have gone into political history, like Brian Lenihan’s first austerity budget or Charlie McCreevy’s biggest giveaways.

But the drama of the good old days is probably no more.

This year, of all years, drama is not what we need. We need exactly what Paschal Donohoe is promising us — a safe, boring, unmemorable budget.

The real action for us starts this year not on budget day, but on October 31, the day of Britain’s departure from the EU, if Boris fails to do a deal — as of now, more likely than not.

And if, despite the chaos that will then ensue, Paschal ends up being remembered as the “steady as she goes” finance minister, that may not be the most exciting legacy for a politician, but it might just mean that he was the right man, in the right place, and at the right time.

Steady Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe may be the right man, in the right place, and at the right time

More in this Section

Mick Clifford podcast: Whistleblowers in Irish society and righting the wrongs from within  Mick Clifford podcast: Whistleblowers in Irish society and righting the wrongs from within

Boris Johnson's Brexit deal: what's in it and how is it different to Theresa May's version?Boris Johnson's Brexit deal: what's in it and how is it different to Theresa May's version?

Will Facebook’s new currency be stopped in its tracks?Will Facebook’s new currency be stopped in its tracks?

What will water bottles be made of in future?What will water bottles be made of in future?

More by this author

Dangerous times for Trump if he faces into process of impeachmentDangerous times for Trump if he faces into process of impeachment

Unionists don’t really believe their own invective on the backstopUnionists don’t really believe their own invective on the backstop

Powerful puppets manipulated by a dark enemy - or nutty fruitcakes?Powerful puppets manipulated by a dark enemy - or nutty fruitcakes?

Teenage climate protestors were born of our abuse of the planetTeenage climate protestors were born of our abuse of the planet


Lifestyle

Mountaintop monasteries, vicious-looking vultures, and a seriously impressive cable car.As Ryanair launches flights to Armenia, here’s why it deserves to be your next holiday destination

Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra played a storming gig at Cork Opera House, writes Des O'Driscoll Live Music Review: Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra

Concerns about people’s ability to access their own money have been growing – here’s what the debate is all about.Are we actually going to end up as a cashless society?

Everything entertainment you need to look out forScene & Heard: Everything entertainment you need to look out for

More From The Irish Examiner