Irish Examiner view: Some respite in hard times, and provision for rainy days ahead

Ministers fulfilled one purpose of the annual budget statement — to sound a positive and encouraging note for the public
Irish Examiner view: Some respite in hard times, and provision for rainy days ahead

People watching the live coverage on sites such as the Irish Examiner's or on TV got a positive message — but nobody is underestimating the challenges we may face in the near future. Picture: Stephen Collins

The statement to the Dáil made by the minister for finance at each budget serves several different purposes, all at the same time.

It forms part of a thread of continuity going back through the decades to previous budgets. It reveals both the passing interests of the day and the perennial challenges to the country. And, from the perspective of the Government of the day, it has a particular political purpose — the statement should sound a positive and encouraging note for the public.

Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath certainly found  that positive note yesterday, with opposition benches unable to land many blows to a budget that spread the money far and wide.

While a difficult winter awaits the country, and none of us will be ‘better off’ in the traditional sense, many of the initiatives revealed by the two men offered some semblance of respite to hard-pressed sectors of society.

For instance, making schoolbooks for primary school pupils free from next September is the kind of initiative that is long overdue, as are the measures aimed at women in the budget: The free contraception scheme being extended to women aged 16 to 30, the introduction of a publicly funded IVF scheme, and zero Vat for hormone replacement therapy and period products.

Yet the budget and its provisions also exist in a wider context, one that stretches far beyond the few cents added to the price of cigarettes.

On that count, a useful comparison can be made with our nearest neighbours. Britain is still reeling from chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget last week, described by one outlet as both a reckless gamble and a moral and fiscal outrage.

The resulting collapse in the value of the pound to an all-time low against the dollar has benefited nobody across the water apart from those financial institutions which bet against the pound (such as the hedge fund which once employed Mr Kwarteng).

It may not be a ringing endorsement of Mr Donohoe and Mr McGrath to say they have shown themselves to be more responsible than the likes of the British chancellor, but the two men have certainly attempted to produce a budget aimed at benefiting an entire society rather than a narrow cohort of money managers.

Indeed, measures introduced yesterday in the Dáil to combat the cost-of-living crisis, such as the €600 energy credit for households, are more reminiscent of French attempts to rein in inflation and put money back in the pockets of its citizens.

The energy credits will only go so far though and the challenges faced by homeowners and businesses are still the biggest threats to our economic and social cohesion, despite the budget measures.

Even as Mr Donohoe was announcing an overall package of €4bn to help alleviate soaring business and household energy bills for this coming winter, news filtered through of another threat to our energy security.

Three leaks were detected in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which carry gas under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Europe, with the Polish prime minister describing the leaks as an act of sabotage.

Considering that latest energy crisis and the ongoing and worsening impact of climate change — which, maddeningly, continues to take a back seat on days like these — our Government politicians cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal.

There was a €2bn rainy day fund set aside yesterday. It is unlikely it will sit unspent for long.

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