Government plays a budget blinder…

Interesting that the British pre budget statement and the Irish budget came on the same day. It’s hard to compare them, since they are not exactly like and like, and both governments are in different stages of their respective cycles. Aside from a major tax hike on cigarettes, the Minister of Finance did the populist thing, and gave pensioners a benefit hike. Fundamentally though, Cowen had the kind of fiscal slack Brown dreamed he would have only a few months back.An old unionist friend told me last year that the only way there would be a united Ireland is if middle class prods wholeheartedly bought the idea. And the only way they would is if it appealed to their wallet. Hmmm… After yesterday’s announcement the higher tax band for income tax is now 41%. And further the PDs have made it clear they are after another one point cut after next year’s election.

Tax relief on first time mortgages will help some, but not most who will just struggle to make the burgeoning asking price. Although it’s questionable whether owning your own home is now, as independent TD Tony Gregory put it, ‘a basic human right’.

Generally the opposition failed to land many clean blows (subs needed) – a reflection perhaps on the paucity of thinking on the opposition benches as to any flawless performance on the part of Brian Cowan (or Biffo according to the Irish Times’ Miriam Lord).

The Sinn Fein leader in the Dail, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was forthright in his criticism of the government, saying, “You have failed once again to use a golden opportunity to make a critical difference in the lives of those who depend on you most.” But he signally failed to produce any analysis of what they had actually done wrong. Bad memories of that painful learning curve perhaps?

The Green Party finance spokesman Dan Boyle had something tangible to throw at the government (buying out of Kyoto?):

A total of about €300 million would be spent on environmental issues, but “90 per cent of that money will be going out of the country in environmental fines as the result of the failure of ongoing Government policies”.

That €270 million “could have been producing jobs. We could have looked at the area of the recyling industry, energy technology industry. But the Minister is choosing to pay the fines rather than doing work to improve our environment.”

Clearly, if Miriam Lords’s sketch is anything to go by, Fianna Fail see themselves as favourites for re-election in June:

Packed with financial firepower, the Government togged out yesterday expecting a good result. Biffo didn’t disappoint. As Budget 2006 moved into its final stages, his backbench cheerleaders relaxed and got giddy.

By their reckoning, they were five goals up with full-time looming, facing an Opposition forced to play with no studs in their boots.

When the final whistle came, the backbench supporters jumped to their feet and celebrated. Across in the Opposition dug-out, players steeled themselves for the moral victory.

They couldn’t have cared less on the Fianna Fáil benches. (Their PD partners appeared less euphoric.) Junior Minister, Conor Lenihan, punched the air. “Ten more years!” he cried. “Folley that!” chortled Tipperary’s Noel Davern.

Whereupon the bulk of the FF backbenchers took themselves off to the bar for a lap of honour, unable to contain their glee long enough to extend the Opposition’s finance people the courtesy of a hearing.

Ach, it’s tough at the top. But as Lord notes, there was a slightly jagged note in all of this triumphal processioning:

“…when Brian announced the pension increases, even Bertie couldn’t help hide a satisfied smile. The old Dublin mammies will love him even more. After an hour, Mr Cowen sat down, applause ringing in his ears. He looked slightly embarrassed. Bertie turned and took Biffo’s hands in both of his.

It was lovely. And then Conor roared: “Ten More Years!” They knew the moment couldn’t last.

There is still six months to the polls Conor… The words cup, slip, and lip come to mind…

Fianna Fail fingers all crossed on the ongoing health of the Irish property market…