TERRY PRONE: Budget brought good news but not for the political parties

THE song should never have been a hit anywhere because its title was weird: ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’. (Translation: ‘Hello Mother, Hello Father’.) It should certainly never have been a hit in Ireland because the entire song was about something we didn’t have back in the 1960s: Summer camps.

The kid supposedly writing a letter to his parents from such a summer camp was not having a great time. It was raining all the time, one of his classmates had developed ptomaine poisoning and another had encountered poison ivy. In addition, he wrote,

“All the counsellors hate the waiters

“And the lake has alligators

“And the head coach wants no sissies

“So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.”

As the song goes on, the kid begs to be taken home, promising he will never again make noise or mess the house with other boys and will “even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me”. The ballad piles the evidence of misery higher and higher. Then comes the last verse, which goes:

“Wait a minute. It’s stopped hailing.

“Guys are swimming. Guys are sailing.

“Playing baseball. Gee, that’s better.

“Muddah, Faddah, kindly disregard this letter.”

The song was a worldwide hit, and someone should re-work, because it summed up the public reaction to a budget that did little more than stop giving us ptomaine poisoning and allowing the alligators to chew lumps off us. The sun came out, the traffic clogged up and we were happy all over again, filled with a new sense of possibility, even though none of us was actually that much better off.

Take the HRI provision, which, as explained on some programme by, I think, an Irish Tax Institute expert, sets out to encourage the citizens to improve their dwellings. Michael Noonan doesn’t want us putting buckets under roof leaks and displacing each other’s hips by bumping into each other in tiny kitchens. He has therefore come up with this cunning plan, called the Home Renovation Incentive, to encourage us to take our courage in our hands and improve our homes. The minimum you can put in to qualify is €4,500. Maximum around €30,000.

As I understand it, and I yearn to be proven wrong on this, if you can come up with the €4,500, and submit invoices and all that proof, you can get €600 back. Over three years. Instalments each year. Maybe we’ve been so squashed by austerity that all this bureaucratic wet cement will seem but a joyful excursion into money-making. Maybe we’ll break into song about getting a couple of hundred this year and a couple next year, just as the writer of ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ did. We’re that beaten down, it wouldn’t be surprising.

The budget was a useful illustration of the uncontrollability of politics. As an academic discipline, politics is as reasoned as the content of an MBA. A rake of books have been published about the science of politics, portraying it as being about mathematics, researching human needs at a given time, meeting those needs, marketing your party’s unique capacity to continue to meet those needs, and winning votes based on rational argument and logic. Right back to when Machiavelli wrote his thin volume advising his prince, books have been published, year after year, which claim that the next presidential or general election will be won through Twitter or Snapchat or by the application of a new form of psychological analysis of voter intent, and because it has the ring of science about it, we nod and accept that it must be right.

The reality, of course, is that politics is not, never has been and never will be a science, and the worthy tomes purporting to put shape, controland predictsbility on it could all be sacrificed and replaced by Alice in Wonderland. Because what actually happens in politics is just like Alice falling down a rabbit hole into a world where everything is out of kilter with the norm. Them’s the political realities. The moment any politician believes they have all their ducks in a row, the ducks turn into flying sheep on a glide path to the abbatoir.

So Michael Noonan, when he must have anticipated a triumphal tour after the budget, found himself getting smacked upside the head about Irish Water. He’s long enough at it to be resigned to the fact that, in politics, the random trumps the planned every time.

In politics, as in real life, there’s no justice. No matter which side you’re on. You might think that if Noonan was getting an Irish Water drenching immediately post-budget, then Micheál Martin would be dancing in the sunshine. But again, the random came into play.

Whenever a political party is doing badly, three things happen. The first is mutual cannibalism. This is a constant in any political party, but recedes to a dull gnaw when times are good. When times are bad, instead of going out and sinking their teeth into lads on the other side, politicians tend to chew their own.

The second thing that happens is a bit of Hamlet. Members of the party clutch a handy skull and opine in a philosophical way. In terms of Fianna Fáil in recent weeks, this led to Eamon Ó Cuív suggesting his party was on the downslide towards where the SDLP is. Who precisely this helps is anybody’s guess.

The third is that people decide that a new leader woud solve the problem. In this instance, Willie O’Dea gently proposed a dearth of immediately appealing contenders, adding that when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t encounter one of them. Say what you like about Deputy O’Dea, he isn’t dumb.

He knows that one of the most popular beliefs among political commentators is that a shift of leader will take a relegated political party right back up into the premiership. Popular — and wrong.

Archie Brown, an Oxford professor, has written one of the best of this year’s political books, referred to before in this column, one of whose central tenets is that the electoral power of a charismatic leader is greatly over-estimated. He points out that when the Conservative Party comfortably won the British general election of 1970, the poll ratings of their leader, Edward Heath, were far below the ratings of the Conservative Party as a whole. Not only that, but Heath was also less popular than the Labour Leader (and prime minister for the previous six years) Harold Wilson.

“When the Conservatives still more convincingly won the 1979 election,” says Brown, “Margaret Thatcher trailed well behind the Labour leader and outgoing prime Minister, James Callaghan.”

That year, an opinion poll taken in April showed Thatcher trailing James Callaghan by 24 points. One month later, she led her party to victory.

Will Micheal Martin do the same? Unlikely. But he isn’t the Fianna Fáil problem and their search for a solution could be hampered if they decide he is.

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