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Party leaders opt for cudgels, not scalpels, in budget postmortem

There was a tone of weary resignation from the Coalition leaders in advance of the Opposition buffeting

Whatever about the measures contained therein, it was a relief when Budget 2024 finally landed.

Respite at last from the national pain in the head brought on by endless talk about what was or wasn’t going to be in it.

Following the big reveal, Dáil Éireann moved on.

A merciful release. Or maybe not.


The time for talking was over.

The time for talking had arrived.

From prognostication to postmortem, the politicians didn’t skip a beat.

Tuesday belonged to the double act of Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe and their Opposition counterparts. The Ministers and the spokespeople stepped into the spotlight.

Their party leaders were consigned to non-speaking roles – silent support acts for decorative purposes only while the underlings had their moment.

Natural order was restored on Wednesday when the afternoon was given over to the leaders and their thoughts.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was informed he had 20 minutes of speaking time, which seemed an optimistic target after he opened with a riveting anecdote about William T Cosgrave presenting the Dáil’s first budget in 1923 and something to do with Ardnacrusha and hydroelectric power and a young engineer from Drogheda who did a stint in Siemens in Germany and how “Ireland is fully in control of her own destiny”.

There was a tone of weary resignation from the Coalition leaders in advance of the Opposition buffeting. But while they weren’t expecting any thanks or appreciation from the ingrates across the floor, they showcased highlights of their €14 billion package anyway for the non-delectation of Mary Lou McDonald and a parade of equally unimpressed speakers who followed her.

“We know the drill at this stage,” shrugged the Taoiseach. “The Opposition parties put together a long list of ways to spend the money available. Long before we publish the budget, they say we made the wrong choices and the package doesn’t go far enough.”

Later in the proceedings, Michael Collins (Rural Independents) made a valid point about Government bellyaching over premature rushes to judgment.

“The Taoiseach and Tánaiste here today talked about the Opposition giving out about the budget before it was even announced. The funny thing is – this is one of the most leaked budgets in the history of the State. It’s a common practice now, so we all knew most of the details anyway beforehand.”

The Tánaiste also pushed back against the barrage of criticism. Despite “the aggressive and dismissive tone” of the responses, Micheál Martin argued strongly that the budget was fair, ambitious and progressive.

Not that he was expecting any small acknowledgment from Sinn Féin, whose two spokespeople “managed to say everything and nothing, and to do so at length” during their reply on Tuesday.

Taking up where the Taoiseach had left off, he savaged every aspect of that party’s alternative budget, reserving particular scorn for the party’s spokesman on housing, Eoin Ó Broin.

Given his prominence in the media “and his pretence of being a housing visionary”, it is remarkable that Sinn Féin hasn’t published a full housing policy, just a series of housing soundbites, he remarked.

At the waspish mention of Ó Broin, Leo Varadkar lifted his head from his notes and smiled.

Micheál attacked the “growing level of entitled arrogance” of Sinn Féin, which was seen over and over again on budget day, “perhaps most starkly when a senior spokesperson told a female Minister of State that they would ‘put manners on her’“.

He was referring to an exchange between Minister of State Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Sinn Féin whip Pádraig MacLochlainn at a pre-budget panel discussion in RTÉ.

“That wasn’t a slip.”

Mary Lou McDonald listened to this double lambasting, biding her time. Leo, Micheál, then only Eamon Ryan to go and then, oh yes, then it would be her turn.

The Taoiseach looked very pointedly at his watch, angling the dial in the Tánaiste’s direction

The Green Party leader rose to his feet.

“I want to join the Taoiseach and Tánaiste in commending the budget to the House, as the third party in a Coalition Government that is working collectively to serve our people to the best of our ability...”

There was a mild kerfuffle to his left. Hurried whispers between Leo and Micheál. The Taoiseach looked very pointedly at his watch, angling the dial in the Tánaiste’s direction. Micheál tucked his biro away in his inside pocket.

Eamon kept talking. The Tánaiste threw out an arm to attract his attention with agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue sitting between the two of them, oblivious.

Eamon was fully absorbed in saying why the budget served the people in this “very uncertain world, in a very difficult time”.

So the Tánaiste hissed something at Charlie because he had to leg it with the Taoiseach and didn’t want to leave without letting Eamon know.

It would have been awful for him to look around mid-speech only to find that Leo and Micheál had snuck off, leaving him alone and at the tender mercies of a fuming Mary Lou – by now metaphorically pawing the ground and exhaling heavily though her nostrils.

The Tánaiste finally caught his eye.

“Council of State meeting,” he muttered apologetically.

Eamon paused, slightly flustered. “Erm, eh ... I understand my colleagues have to go to a Council of State meeting and ... em.” He watched them clatter out of their seats and up to the door.

“I wish them well,” he said with a knowing smile as they left for their appointment with President Michael D Higgins, in the way one might wish somebody well before a root-canal session at the dentist.

And the Sinn Féin leader, in the company of a very small number of colleagues, had a ringside seat for all of this diversion.

Eamon Ryan got on with his ringing endorsement of the budget in a markedly non-confrontational speech compared with the other two.

No part of the budget package escaped Mary Lou’s ire, apart from the measure on mortgage relief which the Government lifted from Sinn Féin and ‘you managed to make a hames of it’

By the time Mary Lou got her chance to respond, that handful of colleagues was now an impressive turnout of almost 30 Sinn Féin deputies, filling the benches in a video-clip friendly show of support.

She attacked from the start. It would come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in Irish political life that the Tánaiste and Taoiseach “spent a disproportionate amount of their time raméising about Sinn Féin”.

If they had confidence in their own budget and the Government’s performance they wouldn’t keep going on about her party. But instead of delivering in the crucial areas of housing, health and the cost-of-living crisis, they “ducked” their responsibilities.

“The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste aren’t here, they had a lot to say, they talk a lot, listen very little,” she noted, looking across at the two empty seats.

Deconstructing Budget 2024 - with Pearse Doherty

Listen | 43:39

Anybody who hadn’t witnessed their hurried departure a short time earlier might have been led to believe that Leo and Micheál also ducked out of a dressing down from the Sinn Féin leader.

But Mary Lou knew this was not the case. She saw what happened and knew why they had to go.

“I frequently remind the three men – one of whom only is here – who lead this Government that you came to office saying that you’d fix housing.

“Taoiseach and Tánaiste, in absentia, a real sign of the lack of fairness that is hard-wired into this budget is found in the area of disability.

“I put it to you Taoiseach and Tánaiste – if you were here – that it’s very dangerous for the Government to pay lip service to the area of mental health.”

No part of the budget package escaped her ire, apart from the measure on mortgage relief which the Government lifted from Sinn Féin and “you managed to make a hames of it”.

They threw in the towel on the health service, then threw Stephen Donnelly under a bus.

It was squandered opportunities and failure all the way.

The Sinn Féin leader came to her inevitable conclusion: time for a general election.

When she concluded, almost all the Sinn Féin TDs belted at speed from the chamber.

“I’ll wait for the exodus to finish,” sighed Labour’s Ivana Bacik.