herald

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Noonan fires the election starting gun

Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin did much more than deliver Ireland's first post-austerity budget yesterday.

They also unveiled an early draft of the next Fine Gael and Labour general election manifestos.

Their message was very simple - we are the dynamic duo who saved this economy, now here's a little taster of the goodies you can enjoy by giving us a second term.

In other words, Budget 2015 is about symbols more than substance and politics more than economics. It contains plenty of small giveaways, but little or nothing that will actually transform anyone's life. It has one fundamental ambition - to convince voters that our economic nightmare is over and we're headed in the right direction.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Noonan and Howlin both wore purple ties. After all, that is the colour you get by mixing Fine Gael blue and Labour red together.

shrewd

This is also a politically shrewd budget, carefully balanced so that both coalition parties can show clear victories to their core supporters.

Fine Gael will be happy with the higher rate tax cut and widening of the income bands, which should give Ireland's squeezed middle some badly needed relief. Labour have secured extra money for new teachers and social housing.

For Tanaiste Joan Burton, a €5 increase in child benefit and a partial restoration of the social welfare Christmas bonus represent the icing on the cake. The only real losers are workers earning over €70,000 (hit by a rise in the USC) and people who smoke (now forced to shell out €10 for a pack of cigarettes) - and, rightly or wrongly, there's not much sympathy for them.

Yesterday was Noonan and Howlin's fourth budget, but the first where they did not have the Troika breathing down their necks. With an election now 18 months away at most, it was hardly surprising that they served up the most generous financial package since 2007.

As for water charges, it looks as if the Government was seriously freaked out by Saturday's monster march in Dublin and by-election results - because the new relief measures can only be seen as a major concession.

Barack Obama once said that his main foreign policy was: "Don't do stupid stuff." Noonan and Howlin may have followed this advice, but they have not tried to do any really clever stuff either. There is a serious danger that when people calculate their gains from Budget 2015 and then factor in the upcoming water bills, they will respond with a giant collective shrug.

Ivan Yates's new memoir Full On includes a stinging description of his old Fine Gael colleague Noonan: "I rated highly his political manipulation skills, tactical nous and one-liner soundbites, but there was damn-all depth of conviction to back it up."

Maybe so. For better or worse, however, Noonan is the backbone of this Government and holds the key to its future.

fighting

After yesterday's solid performance, most coalition TDs feel that he and Howlin have given them at least a fighting chance of re-election. As with all budgets, the people are the jury - and it will take some time for their verdict to become fully clear.

At the end of his Dail speech, Noonan shook off his cough long enough to quote from Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken. Whether or not the veteran finance minister has put Ireland back on the right path, it is too late to turn back now.

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