Alison O’Connor: Anger and bitterness but we don’t have a bottomless pit of money

In the run up to Tuesday, as the billions kept rising, people in Government were resigned to the fact that the general response would still be a bit 'meh'
Alison O’Connor: Anger and bitterness but we don’t have a bottomless pit of money

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath arriving at Government Buildings, to unveil the Government's Budget for 2023. 

These are not normal times,” Minister for Public Enterprise and Reform Michael McGrath stated in his Budget speech. At this stage we need a reminder of what “normal” used to look like. The memories are hazy as we lurch from one crisis, not of our making, to another.

Currently, the crisisometer remains focussed on the war in Ukraine, from the macro horror of it to the micro of how it will affect our own household bottom line. Nearer to home is the economic craziness being practised right next door by new British Prime Minister Liz Truss. There is a lot to keep those stress hormones pumping.

This is an extremely frightening time for many throughout the country. We must look after those who are traditionally vulnerable as well as those who, through the incredibly tough economic times we are in, are also now in trouble. But perspective is never more important than at a time like this. Of late it has felt as if we are talking ourselves into destitution. The “failed state” narrative has an almost iron grip on the national narrative. We have genuine problems — of that there is no doubt — housing and health being top of that list. Anger is entirely understandable. Indeed if people vote in the next general election to oust the Government on the basis of those two things it will be entirely understandable. We have our significant issues. But we are actually not living in an absolute kip of a place.

The danger of the sort of overplay we hear so much of is clear.

 For instance, you’d have to worry this winter we will see deaths from hypothermia among our elderly population who are probably terrified of even switching on a light right now

Our elders are no doubt hardier than we are, but even in good economic times this is a generation loathe to “waste” the heat. In the current air of panic many of them will not realise there is no danger they will be cut off, and even if they do know that, the worry will persist that the cost of any heat at all will be prohibitive.

Our lack of gratitude

In the Dáil on Tuesday our Budget was delivered by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath. Whatever you think of their politics, both steered us ably and with humanity through Covid, to an economy that has rebounded very impressively. 

Before that there was Brexit

Now it is a war in Ukraine.

So surely the details in the rest of the speeches delivered by the two ministers, outlining an utterly dizzying array of budgetary giveaways worth billions, might deserve to be greeted with some degree of gratitude or obvious relief.

It’s not like we didn’t know what was coming given that it was so well leaked in advance — a strategy the Government clearly employed as a way for voters to differentiate, and dare they hope, appreciate, one piece of expensive budget confetti from the other.

In the weeks beforehand the billions kept rising, the eventual €4.1 billion in once-off spending had actually quadrupled from where it started, with the €6.9 billion of recurring spending increases and tax changes.

But in the run-up to Tuesday, as the billions kept rising, eventually landing in the stratosphere, people in Government were resigned to the fact that the general response would still be a bit 'meh'

In “normal” times this was the sort of budget that would look and smell like a general election one. A Government would feel confident in going to the country after the dispensing of such largesse, the biggest amount ever. They’d even welcome the next significant opinion poll, confidently expecting a bounce in it. But not in the times that we live in.

With the backdrop of rampant inflation citizens have been told that our economic situation is going to worsen — by quite how much no one knows — before it improves. Understandably this backdrop tempers the positivity of the response to Tuesday’s giveaway, but between the layers there is more to it than that.

Anger and bitterness

There now exists anger and bitterness towards our Government parties that it would not matter if the two ministers had announced substantial lottery wins for every household in the country — to be repeated in January.

The response would be along the lines of: “Is that the best you can do?”

Key to this is the housing crisis and the bitterness so many people feel towards the government for the failure to show tangible results. After so many years of hearing that the latest housing plan will be the “next best thing”, and the solution is just around the next corner, those facing the prospect of never owning their own home and paying crippling rents are understandably cynical and angry.

Sinn Féin, as an opposition party, has been handed fertile material on which to base their attacks. A mediocre opposition could land significant blows, but in Sinn Féin the Government faces a disciplined, talented, and highly effective foe.

They have done their work very effectively.

We do well to remember that our money pot is not bottomless, but as we do our very best to get to the bottom of it, let us at least acknowledge the spending of it

The Government had a large surplus going into this Budget and proceeded to throw money at our problems. Sadly the money is not free.

After all, every single cent of what was promised on Tuesday is ultimately taxpayers’ money, not to mention the oodles of public debt already owed by Irish people. Even the opposition couldn’t muster too much of the traditional outrage given the level of spending announced. But going on our current public mood the dial may well remain unshifted.

Let us be more aware of the pall of utter and absolute hopelessness hanging over our public discourse — undoubtedly fuelled by the media — but embraced by many. Brought to mind is that poem “Said Hanrahan” by Australian Bush poet John O’Brien.

‘“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan, “Before the year is out”’.

No surprise to discover that O’Brien was the pen name of a Catholic priest Patrick Hartigan, son of parents who had emigrated from Co Clare to Australia. No surprise either to discover that Hanrahan, who was speaking about the droughts, floods and bushfires, was a pessimistic man of Irish descent.

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