Paul Hosford: Election budget? Coalition makes hay as the kites fly

Surprisingly muted atmosphere in Leinster House as €4bn package announced
Paul Hosford: Election budget? Coalition makes hay as the kites fly

Michael McGrath with Paschal Donohoe ahead of the budget announcement. Picture: Moya Nolan

After weeks of tortuous discussion, it took just 90 minutes for €11bn in spending and tax measures to be announced.

When Paschal Donohoe and then Michael McGrath alternately took to their feet in the Dáil chamber it was to deploy what is, frankly, a staggering amount of money.

Between a €4bn package for one-off measures and €7bn in tax changes and new spending, Ireland will aim to spend a total of €90bn in 2023. 

All the weeks of cold pizza and 1am texts paid off.

Yet, with that much money set to leave the public coffers, the atmosphere in Leinster House was somewhat more muted than you might expect.

Indeed, even outside the building, though both Molesworth Street and Merrion Street were barricaded off, you could have kept one hand in your pocket and still been able to count the protesters who showed up.

With, as Labour's finance spokesperson Ged Nash put it, "more kites flown than on Bettystown beach" in the lead-up to the announcement, much of the shape of the budget was known by the time newspapers hit stands.

In that regard, each minister taking 45 minutes to lay out the financial and spending priorities for the year felt almost more an act of confirmation than proclamation.

Eye on election

But more than a confirmation, there was some suggestion that this was the kind of budget one would deploy with an eye on an election next year.

Within the coalition parties, the official line is that the next election will be in 2025 as the Government goes the distance.

But privately, some senior sources accept that the budget did its absolute best to please as many people as possible, spreading the €11bin thinly in some places, but across the board.

They point to Fine Gael priorities in cutting third-level fees and ensuring a €12 a week rise in core social welfare as evidence that maybe, just maybe, Leo Varadkar could pull the trigger on an election after next summer.

The political calculus from within the coalition is that the public would more closely associate Fine Gael with the longer-term improvements in their pocket, with Fianna Fáil linked to the one-off measures.

Eaten bread is soon forgotten on a national political scale, basically.

In the chamber, the bookies were made to pay out on Paschal Donohoe wearing a green tie, with Michael McGrath wearing blue in the surest sign yet that Civil War politics has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar sat to their left, out of their usual spots. But budget days are the preserve of the finance portfolios. The leaders can watch on as their consiglieres do the work of the day.

Mr Donohoe did his best to project calm, to paint the coalition as what Succession's Kendall Roy would call "the adults in the room". 

He almost returned to a favourite quote of his, referencing the "political centre...that is pro-European, supportive of enterprise, committed to a sustainable future for our public finances and for our environment".

It wasn't quite "the centre must hold", but the message was one which this government has sought to hammer home — that this is a prudent group, not prone to hugely radical changes, but one which will also not threaten the comfort of those who find themselves doing better in Ireland.

Individual praise

That didn't stop welcome within the chamber of individual measures. Education Minister Norma Foley received a loud "well done" from Clare TD Cathal Crowe on her budget and Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, sat behind the chamber seats with a group of senators, applauded the announcement of the removal of Vat on period products.

Even some of the journalists got in on it, ironically cheering the removal of Vat on newspapers, though one seasoned hack lamented it was "too little, too late".

The fact that the budget had been assiduously leaked in the days leading up to it meant that the opposition had its zingers ready to go.

Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty said it was a document lacking ambition, lacking vision and lacking fairness. His idea of an cap on energy prices was met with heckles from the Fianna Fáil backbenches that he was aping UK Tory policy.

But it was his party colleague Mairead Farrell who landed the most serious blows. Ms Farrell, acting as a representative for young people and women, facing an ever-dwindling number of government TDs — all men — was a striking image. 

She said the government had tried to ape Sinn Féin but had suffered a "wardrobe malfunction" and "put its shoes on the wrong feet".

Perhaps it was put best by Solidarity-PBP TD Mick Barry who said that the "silence" of the government backbenches was the most telling aspect of the day.

Whether that was because the budget was well flagged, whether those TDs weren't impressed or whether they saw it as the starting gun to an election remains to be seen.

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