Early warnings of political chaos after next Budget
THE mood music is ominous. In the run-up to Wednesday's Budget, the headlines are dominated by rumours of Coalition splits, walk-outs and reports of a Cabinet minister admitting that one of his colleagues is not up to the job.
With 48 hours to go, the Government just has to hope that it will be all right on the night -- but all the omens so far suggest a shambolic and bad-tempered process that could easily end up in political disaster.
As key details of the Budget were decided at the weekend, the faultlines between Fine Gael and Labour became apparent.
With just a couple of weeks to go, it seems that Labour demanded a hike of 3pc in the Universal Social Charge for anyone earning over €100,000.
Fine Gael responded by calling for an across-the-board cut in social welfare rates, an offer that it knew the other party would have to refuse -- and which caused such tension that at one point Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore had to go for a walk so that tempers could cool.
All this eleventh-hour bickering does not exactly inspire confidence. If the history of budgets teaches us one thing, it's that they need to be checked line by line to make sure there are no landmines waiting to explode.
From what we know so far, it would be little surprise if Government ministers spent much of next weekend picking shrapnel out of their faces.
When Charlie McCreevy was Minister for Finance, he famously put together budgets almost single-handedly.
On one occasion, he dropped it into Bertie Ahern's constituency office and gave the Taoiseach just 20 minutes to read it while he took a stroll around Drumcondra. This Government promised a new era of transparency, with all Budget options debated in public long before Michael Noonan actually got to his feet.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. Instead, this year's Budget negotiations have been largely controlled by the Government's four-man economic council, which includes Kenny, Gilmore, Noonan and Brendan Howlin. All other ministers have been kept in the dark -- and some, most notably Joan Burton -- are clearly furious about it.
In the last few days, a flurry of leaks has given us some idea of what to expect.
Child benefit and some pensioners' allowances are virtually certain to be cut. The new property tax is likely to start at a fairly modest level, with a 'mansion tax' on homes worth more than €1m. PRSI and motor tax regulations will be tweaked in order to squeeze a few more quid out of people.
There is one question, however, that nobody can answer now.
This Budget may try to spread the pain as evenly as possible, but will it ultimately be seen as fair? In a country where almost two million people now have less than €100 left after paying essential bills every month, even a small miscalculation could end up tipping many families over the edge.
The political stakes could not be much higher.
As Eamon Gilmore pointed out over the weekend, this Budget will mean that around 85pc of Ireland's fiscal adjustment has been achieved. That will be cold comfort if it has a major negative impact on the Government's popularity -- especially now that some opinion polls show Fianna Fail breathing down their necks.
With the temperature rising, it's no wonder some Cabinet ministers are feeling the heat.
At a recent Labour parliamentary party meeting, Ruairi Quinn reportedly told some of his backbenchers that James Reilly is badly out of his depth and cannot last much longer.
He also went on to warn that the party "can't be seen to be looking for a head" -- but that could easily change if our bumbling health minister handles the upcoming abortion battle with his usual tact and political skill, or lack thereof.
The trailer for Wednesday's Budget is far from encouraging. We can only hope that the movie itself is a lot easier on the eye.