Donohoe failed to put personal stamp on maiden budget speech

Back in 1967, on April 11 to be precise, the then minister for finance delivered a very long and very remarkable budget speech. 

Donohoe failed to put personal stamp on maiden budget speech

Charles Haughey was his name, and he spoke for what seemed like hours. When he was finished he was greeted with sustained applause, and shouts of “the best ever” (led by Ray Burke’s father, of all people).

The speech is best remembered for one paragraph, which read as follows: “The electricity bill can be a worry when resources are

limited.

A scheme is being prepared which will remove this expense, or reduce it substantially, for all households consisting only of old age pensioners … A scheme is also being worked out in consultation with CIÉ whereby old age and blind pensioners will be able to travel free of charge on CIÉ buses and trains during periods when traffic is not heavy …” That’s how history gets made.

When you read the debate now, it all seems as dry as dust. What was genuinely remarkable about Haughey’s speech (at least it seems so from this perspective) is that he began by talking about the surplus available to him — £800,000. That’s right, less than a million.

He took in some money from extra taxes on “the old reliables” in the course of the speech — two pence on a packet of cigarettes and a penny on a pint of beer.

He ended up spending the princely sum of just under £8m on social welfare and other measures — and the bulk of that went to farmers.

Nowadays, you couldn’t run a strategic communications unit for that kind of money. Back then, the few bob Haughey spent on free travel and electricity for old age pensioners was enough to make him a legend.

A couple of years later, he agreed to forego another tiny amount in tax (again, less than a million) when he introduced a tax exemption for writers and artists.

Until the Celtic Tiger years, Haughey was almost the last finance minister who was able to stand up in the Dáil and begin his budget speech with a surplus (and of course, we blew the surpluses of the Celtic Tiger years, but that’s another story).

But he may also have been the last minister for finance who had his own clear purpose in mind when he stood up, and whose circumstances weren’t dictated to him by world events and economic disasters.

And it’s funny, isn’t it — despite all the things that Haughey went on to do, that did so much damage to Irish politics, he’s still fondly remembered by at least his own generation for those two budgetary measures, the free travel and the writers’ and artists’ tax

relief.

I was in Buswell’s Hotel last week for Paschal Donohoe’s maiden budget speech. Buswell’s is where radio and television gathers, so if you have something to say about the budget there’s a chance you’ll be called on.

It was grand, and it was bland — the speech I mean. I’m willing to bet that in 50 weeks’ time, never mind longer, nobody will remember a word that was in it. It was a dolly mixture budget — a little taste of sugar for everyone, but nothing that remotely resembled sustenance for anyone.

Not for the first time on budget day, I found myself wondering why Mr Donohoe had chosen not to use his considerable power to stamp his own personality on the speech.

You do that by picking a theme, by deciding that your budget will be remembered for one particular thing.

It’s always seemed to me that the less you have to give away, the more you should decide that you’re going to concentrate on one issue. That your budget is going to be remembered as the education budget, or the children’s budget, or the disability budget.

If Paschal Donohoe had decided that this year — for all the obvious reasons — he wasn’t going to give a little bit here and a little bit there, but was instead going to concentrate every penny of spare resources on addressing the needs of homeless families and children, he would have created a much bigger stir.

Sure, there’d be all sorts of people giving out about the bits they missed out on, but Paschal would have ended the day looking and sounding like a leader.

It wasn’t there. Somehow budget day never seems to really produce that idea of a new direction, a new sense of vision, a new leadership.

It occurred to me in Buswells that I’ve been in that hotel, in one capacity or another, for virtually every budget speech since Alan Dukes’ first one in 1983.

At least back then, whatever about vision and direction, there was a sense of drama about the occasion. Governments had fallen over budgets a year or two earlier, and it was considered absolutely essential that nobody would have any advance knowledge of what was in the budget (it didn’t make a huge amount of sense then either, but that was the culture.)

Peter Prendergast was the government press secretary when Alan Dukes delivered his first budget, and I was Prendergast’s deputy.

We were called to Alan Dukes’s office an hour before he spoke so he could tell us what he was going to say. We weren’t allowed to ask questions, and our opinions certainly weren’t sought.

We were just supposed to be told enough so that we could present a united front in trying to “spin” the budget.

It didn’t work out that way, of course, because Prendergast and I had diametrically opposed views of the impact of the decisions made. But ever since then I’ve regarded the entire budgetary process as being like an accident waiting to happen.

We’ve had budgets that were designed to win elections, and a couple that contributed

to losing elections.

We’ve had budgets characterised by their authors as groundbreaking and historic which were actually farcical in their intent and outcome (do you remember Charlie McCreevy’s decentralisation budget, for example?).

In recent years we’ve had budgets entirely dictated by external forces, like the troika. We’ve had cruel and brutal budgets, dressed up as a call to patriotism.

We’ve had budgets (Brian Lenihan and the medical cards for pensioners) that were undone within hours. We’ve had budgets that seemed entirely bland, until a time bomb buried in the detail blew up a few weeks later.

But in my time I cannot remember a budget delivered by a minister who was determined to achieve one real, lasting, significant change.

We’ve had ministers like that, of course, but never one who managed to persuade his colleagues to give him a free hand on budget day to make a real difference (and of course, it’s always been a him — wouldn’t it be interesting to see what kind of a fist a woman would make of that challenge.)

It really has got to the point, hasn’t it, where all the hype is misplaced. Maybe someday some government will decide again that budget day is the moment to chart a new course for the country. Until then, I think I’ll stop going to Buswell’s.

And let them do their bean-counting on their own.

We’ve had budgets designed to win elections, and a couple that contributed to losing elections

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