Welcome to the old curiosity shop: is it a nightmare or am I dreaming?

I WASN’T alone. I thought I had settled down by the fire for a pleasant doze, the dog at my feet, sparks drifting up the chimney.

But there was a chill in the room, as if a window had blown open. And a strange foreboding, brought on by the sudden realisation that I was in the presence of an unwelcome stranger.

But who was it? Who was that ghostly figure in the corner, his face hidden by the shadows cast by the firelight? Why was he so still, so silent? It's Christmas Eve, after all, a time of good cheer, a time to reflect on the year just past. It's a time for friendly faces, and heaven knows there are a lot of them around. Where had this gloomy creature come from, and what had I done to deserve this unwelcome intrusion?

I should have known, of course. Ever since the Budget, I've had Ebenezer Scrooge on my mind. It was by far the worst budget in my political lifetime in terms of public spending and the social consequences of so many cutbacks in real terms, and I've spent a lot time since thinking about the meanness of it all. So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, just when I was ready to let the season of goodwill take over, to receive a visit from one of Ebenezer's friends. Before the night was over, I was to meet many more.

"I am the ghost of Christmas future," the hooded figure intoned when I asked him who he was and what he was doing in my room, "and I've come to show you the next 12 months. Your commentary in the Irish Examiner has been so unpatriotic, so determined to undermine the great national work of the Government, that you must be shown the error of your ways."

And then, before I could protest, he had swept me up, and we were flying, yes flying, over the streets and houses of the city. I have to admit that once my first fear of flying subsided, the sensation was not unpleasant.

It wasn't long before we spotted a familiar figure, hunched over a desk in a little house on the south side of the city, his handsome if perhaps dissolute profile silhouetted by a guttering candle.

"It's Uriah McDowell," I exclaimed. "But what are all those bundles of papers all around him?"

"They are the 84 bills he will introduce to the Dáil in the new year," the ghost explained. "All written by himself, all beautiful and elegant. He will confound you with his genius when you see the fruits of his work."

"But what are they about?"

"Oh, everything," said the ghost. "From the forced repatriation of malcontents to the ritual public humiliation of left-wingers. Before the year is out, our great justice minister will put the economy to rights as well. That large volume you see him working at now that's his major work on uncovering the alchemist's secret. Yes, he will shortly show us all how to turn base metal into gold."

"Perhaps I've misjudged him over the years," I murmured.

"You have indeed," the ghost told me, "although he is too wise and far-seeing to be bothered by the likes of you. But you have more to see and if you have the wit, more to learn."

"Who is that down there?" I cried, pointing at the old curiosity shop just below us.

"Ah, little Nell!" the ghost replied. "Or Tánaiste Nell Harney to you. You see her there, knitting and sewing till her fingers bleed. But you have no appreciation of her, with all your carping criticism."

"What is she making?" I wanted to know. "It looks like... ". "It is," the ghost said. "It is enough hats and mittens to keep the poor warm throughout the whole of next year, and inside, by day and by night, Tánaiste Nell is baking enough bread to feed every poor family in the land.

Not that they need much, since her policies have encouraged so much wealth creation."

"I always thought she was indifferent to the poor," I said.

"But you were wrong," the ghost told me. "And perhaps now you will have the grace to admit what a soft and generous heart she truly has."

Before I could reply, we were swooping down along the line of the canal, so fast it took my breath away. There below us, hopping and darting among the crowd, was the Artful Dodger, picking pockets with all the speed and deftness I had always associated with him.

"I see the Dodger McCreevy hasn't changed anyway," I said to the ghost.

"You are wrong again," the ghost said sharply. "Look, look at him. He is only picking the pockets of the rich, in the interests of social justice. And would he keep it for himself, like some begrudger or left-wing pinko. No, not the Dodger. Look!"

And as I watched, the Dodger emptied his takings into the pockets of a boy Tiny Tim I knew immediately, whose brave little face, wracked with pain, was transformed by the kindness and goodness of the Dodger McCreevy.

But there was more. The greatest revelation of all came as we flew back up the canal, this time to the city's Northside, to see the hordes of people crowding around one figure. Tall, distinguished, his nose red in the cold, his neck evidently sore from nodding and agreeing.

"It's Bertie Copperfield!" I exclaimed. "But what are those people doing all around him?"

"They're seeking justice and truth," the ghost replied, "and where else would they come? Here they get clarity, understanding, wisdom."

And it was true. As we watched, everyone who approached Bertie Copperfield seemed to come away from him smiling. Some looked perplexed, as if they hadn't been able to fully comprehend the words of wisdom he was dispensing.

But in the main, people appeared to feel they had got what they deserved.

"You see now," said the ghost. "You see the injustice of your behaviour, of your obnoxious and unworthy criticism."

"Take me home, ghost," I cried. "I repent all, I see the error of my ways.

This wonderful Government, so full of mercy and wisdom, has nothing to fear from me."

And suddenly I was back in my sitting room, the memory of the night already beginning to fade, only the dying embers of the fire a reminder that I had been away for several hours.

I struggled to remember everything I had seen the great outpouring of genius from Uriah McDowell, the tenderness and care of Tánaiste Nell, the carefree yet generous behaviour of the Artful Dodger McCreevy, and the wisdom and clarity of Bertie Copperfield. Shaking myself, and getting ready to go to my bed, I resolved that in future I would be a supporter, not a critic, of this wonderful Government.

But as I climbed the stairs, a nagging doubt arose. What if it had been a dream? What if, after all, the figures I had seen were just a figment of imagination? No, I thought. Never. How could all those visions have been a dream? How could they?

Fergus Finlay has been appointed chef de cabinet of the Labout Party. He takes up his position on January 1.

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