The main character was delivering his final line. “We have achieved so much and we can, and will, achieve some more. This is why I commend Budget 2018 to the House,” proclaimed Paschal Donohoe.
Cue (some) applause, then half the House exeunt, pursued by a barely-raised eyebrow.
As a piece of theatre, it was a bit of a let-down following the dramatic Cardiff cliffhanger the night before. To be honest, it would have been an anti-climax if it had followed a five-a-side fixture between two teams of actuaries on a wet Monday night in Bohola.
This wasn’t a Lionel Messi budget, all inventive moves and daring flourishes designed to leave a bamboozled opposition gasping in its wake. Instead, the government parked the bus, and Paschal Donohoe was Denis Irwin, former Irish international and Manchester United back, an utterly dependable defender guarding carefully against own goals and sneak attacks.
Usually there is a bit of a frisson around Leinster House on Budget Day — certainly in recent dark times it was a frisson of pure dread over what savage cuts were on the cards. Last year there was a bit of interest around the first budget under the fragile Fine Gael-Independent-Fianna Fáil arrangement, with people tuning in as one does to the start of a Grand Prix to see if there’s a massive pile-up at the first corner.
But yesterday the corridors were deadly quiet. There was more animation in a bag of doornails. This was largely due to two facts. One, everything had been torturously haggled out with Fianna Fáil and the Independents — the latter couldn’t even, in all conscience, stage their usual last-minute synchronised spitting of dummies out of their collective cot.
What’s more, all the interesting or potentially tricky bits of the budget had been strategically leaked in advance, just in case some proposed measure sparked the lighting of pitchforks of hay by some outraged section of the populace. Instead the extra gardaí outside the Kildare Street gate cooled their heels and counted the tumbleweed while they waited for hordes of Fanta-waving (sugar tax) tangerine-tinted (sun-bed tax) protesters to materialise.
And what wasn’t leaked, materialised on social media instead. In the run-up to the budget announcement, the new Strategic Communications Unit set about justifying its €5m price-tag — as included in the Budget Expenditure Report — to “improve” and “streamline” communications by posting pre-game clips of Paschal practising his speech and bringing the budget to the printers (it was a blank dummy copy, as god forbid the real thing should fall into the wrong hands and — ha! — leak).
As the Taoiseach ran the gauntlet of journalists outside Government Buildings en route to the morning Cabinet meeting before the unveiling of the budget, Leo Varadkar breezily assured the media that there would “no fireworks” hidden in the raft of measures.
In fact, so sure was the finance minister that there would be no scary scenes in the Dáil that his family were happily ensconced in the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery — his proud mother Cáit (Paschal is the image of her), his wife Justine, brother Ronán and his two young children Oscar and Lucy who were models of good behaviour — few kids would sit quietly for an entire hour while Daddy spoke non-stop.
But the entire chamber was almost as good as Oscar and Lucy, with only the occasional half-hearted heckle rising from the opposition. When he announced the recruitment of an extra 800 gardaí, Billy Kelleher of Fianna Fáil shot off a small arrow. “Are they all going to Stepaside?” he wondered.
There were measures galore. Half-measures and full measures (cigs and sunbeds taxed, a new sugar tax but no tax on sugar-filled wine). Other smokes were paired with mirrors — the number of social houses slated to be built next year is in reality unchanged, despite increases in overall budget. There were carrots-and-sticks, little sugar lumps and small bitter pills.
And several new acronyms were introduced — hurrah — such as KEEP, or Key Employee Engagement Programme. In fact, if there was a tax on acronyms, the plain people of Ireland would all be AHAPIS (as happy as pigs in.. oh never mind). Paschal carefully removed all dramatic language or tones from his script — the ‘shining city on the hill’ elements of last year’s speech when he was Public Expenditure Robin to Michael Noonan’s Batman were replaced with don’t-scare-the-horses language. Even Michael Noonan, sitting among the backbenchers, looked stricken by a bout of ennui. Of Enda Kenny there was no sign, until the late evening votes.
Fianna Fáil simultaneously approved and disapproved. Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath instead trained his wrath on Sinn Féin — “hurlers on the ditch!” he thundered.
Likewise his colleague Dara Calleary praised with faint damn. “This budget is by no means perfect, but it is much stronger, much fairer and much more ambitious for our island than it would have been without our input.”
There was a fiery hour-long response from Pearse Doherty, the Sinn Féin TD. “Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and their independent friends have told us that now is the time to return to the boom and bust politics of the past,” he declared angrily.
The politics of the past is certainly littered with the bones of broken promises. The Government vowed to make everyone’s life a little easier in this budget. We’ll see — nobody was sick as a parrot, but nobody was over the moon, either.