By John Kelly
When I see any minister for finance posing outside Government Buildings for the customary throng of photographers, I know we are in for the greatest heap of waffle since, well, last year.
There he stood again, Charlie McGreevy, with a laptop conspicuously labeled "Budget 1999." Gone was the old, battered wooden box, copied directly from the British chancellor of the exchequer. In its place was the representative of the Celtic Tiger, displaying Ireland’s fast-developing love affair with the computer. McGreevy presented the image we want to cultivate: Ireland, the Silicon Valley of Europe.
Dutifully, the Irish Times places the picture of the smiling Charlie and the oversized laptop on the steps outside Leinster House. And they follow it up with the slightly disapproving headline, "Bet, drink and be merry, urges cheerful Charlie."
It’s not entirely fair to say that McGreevy’s predilection is for the citizens of the Celtic Tiger to bet, drink and be merry. He just had a hell of a lot of cash to throw around, and just like any other sensible minister for finance, he was determined to spread as much of it as possible over sectors that are traditionally useful in Irish elections.
Almost every part of Irish society got something — or at least seemed to get something. In this regard, it must be said that the deception of gain in a budget is almost as important as the reality. It is even more important when the votes are counted at any future election. It must seem that everybody has benefited.
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Real, tangible gains are not nearly as important as conveying the illusion to sectional bloc votes that they have benefited. For example, 40,000 or so farmers recently marched through Dublin, paralyzing the city almost as effectively as the taxi drivers and the jarveys. Hey, presto, the small farmers, the horny handed men of the soil, the inheritors of the men who fought for the young Republic of Ireland and thronged to the ranks of Fianna Fail, were provided for in the electronic "Budget 1999."
Perhaps not as much as they might wish. But then, not even an Irish minister for finance, doling out the greatest largesse the Republic has ever enjoyed, can cater to everybody. He came up with the notion of a "Farm Assist" scheme and doled out no less than £50 million to 14,000 farmers. The trouble with this is that an estimated 37,000 farming households in Ireland have incomes of less than £150 a week.
So, while the farmers are reasonably happy, they are not hugely happy, even though Charlie also promised that he will also revamp the smallholder’s unemployment assistance scheme to put another £15 million per annum into farming pockets in the various constituencies.
All of this will help or hinder the return of the next government. There was a time when Irish governments were at pains to ensure that the farming community was happier than any other. Though 40,000 farmers marched through the streets of Dublin, the simple electoral fact is that more and more of them are disappearing from the land. So, they have fewer votes. Unless they make noise, they are less important than they were.
John Healy, a genuinely great journalist, wrote a hard-hitting social treatise on his homeland in Mayo many years ago. Aptly, he titled it "Nobody Cried Stop," referring to the fact that few TDs in any of the various parties had launched any major campaigns against the mass emigration from the West, but especially from Mayo.
Nobody did cry stop. And few stopped. West of the Shannon, farms that once reared large families, admittedly in the most frugal of circumstances, lay idle beneath bramble and dock leaf. Where there were thatched farmhouses, there is now only the hard feel of their foundations beneath the feet on a soft day.
No matter how disingenuous a minister for finance may be, and to be fair, McGreevy is by no means the worst of them, the budget still gives a real insight into a government’s philosophy. And that, in turn, is governed absolutely by the priorities of the greatest number of voters.
Farming has been shelved in these set-aside days when some of the best land in Ireland is being converted into luxury golf courses because the European Union is trying to cut production surpluses. The big priority in this latest budget was the relief of hard-pressed Irish taxpayers, especially those in lower- and middle-income jobs.
It was something that the same financial minister could probably have dealt with last year. But there are few governments that will deal with problems that should be dealt with just because they should. The real priority of government is to stay in government for as long as possible. And that is why it was not dealt with in any realistic fashion last year. A year further down the road is a year closer to the return of power.
There are very few members of Fianna Fail who will predict with any certainty just how long this government will continue in office. Several tribunals loom like icebergs before the Titanic. It would be foolish to proceed straight ahead at full speed. While the peace process may seem to be right on course it still has as many surprises and as many ups and downs as the Coney Island roller coaster.
There is not a Fianna Fail TD, backbench or frontbench, who is prepared to guarantee anything. It is still a coalition government, held in piece by independent TDs who can lower the boom on practically any issue that threatens their survival in their own power bases: Jackie Healy-Rea, in south Kerry or Harry Blaney in north Donegal.
"Budget 1999" was as clever and compact as the high-tech case that introduced it. It gave the opposition little ground for criticism. It satisfied most, infuriated few. But it is not the final guarantee of sustained leadership for the power brokers within Fianna Fail, the wily politicians who still seek the goal of that elusive future "majority government," one that will be hostage to none and final master of all it surveys.