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FF's Fleming quickly adds up the damage

THIS is the first Budget since Ruairi Quinn's in 1996 that Fianna Fail has been in the position of having to respond to as an Opposition.

Only a handful of the remaining Fianna Fail TDs have any experience of replying to a Budget statement on the hoof.

Back then, they had both the numbers in the chamber and in their research office to be able to respond robustly. Back then, they were also not hampered by seeing their economic strategy being implemented by the Government.

In these circumstances, the party's spokesperson, Sean Fleming, did reasonably well.

His accountancy background enabled him to focus in on some of the finer and more damaging points that appeared in the tables, but somehow managed not to make it into the Minister's script.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald concentrated on the politics, needling Fine Gael and Labour backbenchers for reneging on their election promises.

Over recent years, we have been moving from the traditional Westminster model of budgets where the finance minister goes into a self-imposed silence in advance of the statement, to a European one where large elements emerge into the public arena in advance.

It is all about the management of expectations.

Unlike the Taoiseach last Sunday night, Howlin's immediate, expectant audience yesterday was the massed ranks of backbench government TDs who would like to be two-term Deputies, not one-termers.

This may account for the very muted applause after Mr Howlin resumed his seat.

Though this may have just as much been due to how inappropriate and ill-judged the loud cheers and fulsome applause the Fianna Fail deputies gave to their recent Budgets seems now.