Yesterday’s Budget reminded me a bit of Budget day in December 2006. I was working with Sinn Féin in Leinster House at the time, and embarrassingly – and much to the amusement of some of us who still had a sense of humour about such matters and that included most of the TDs, in fairness – the benefits announced amounted in quite a number of cases to around the same or even more than what had been demanded by Sinn Féin in its pre-Budget submission.
This of course was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, and the state coffers, as now, were temporarily flush. So Bertie and the gang not surprisingly decided that it would be a good idea to put the cash about prior to the general election that was to be held in 2007. As a consequence, of course, Fianna Fáil was returned as part of another coalition containing the Greens and Progressive Democrats. Sinn Féin, deprived of the misery ambulance to chase, managed to lose one of its five seats at the time.
Many a press release had to be rejigged or abandoned, and in his response to Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, in the chamber then Sinn Féin party leader and sound man Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin made the best of a bad lot by referring to the poor who will always be with us, and the rich whose fault it is. It was the speech of a Dancing Priest fretting over inequality – not one you might expect from a party promising a brave new Ireland. Or a revolution even.
Christmas 2006 was peak Fianna Fáil, and the Dáil bar and surrounding bars on December Budget Day, to which myself and other Shinners had recourse later, were full of the Irish equivalents of Essex Man. These were the lads and ladies who thought that the good times would never end – and who were able, with some justification, to claim that while they might particularly never end for those within their own circle that sure, lookit, everyone was better off.
To be honest, I had never been that interested in whether social welfare payments were going to be a fiver or a tenner more than they were, or in the jigging income tax bands. I happened to agree with the view of an unreconstructed Fenian revolutionary who was still grimly like myself trying to convince himself that the “struggle” was still going on; that the spectacle of Leinster House politicians arguing over all of this was like a family who had just spent €20k on a holiday arguing over the price of a taxi to the airport.
It was all trivialities, if you were supposed to be about some “vision” caper. Not that all of the changes announced either back then or yesterday are trivial to many people. They are significant, but let’s be honest if you are looking at where the next fiver or tenner is coming from in order to buy food or turn the heat on, then you are in a grim place, and will still be in only a slightly less grim place when you go to the post office the next time.
My point being, apropos of what was announced yesterday by the Government, that no party outside of government is ever going to be able to do anything practical to back up their claims to be more concerned about the “marginalised” and the poor. And history proves that no party that accepts the ground rules is ever going to do much differently when they themselves have the key to the safe.
Some prefer to fall back on the claim that “Oh, Sinn Féin has never had the opportunity so we don’t know.” Well, we do know. They’ve been in power in the north with more or less the same fiscal powers as any government in Dublin for the best part of two decades. They can claim restraints on what they were able to do, but sure that’s the whole point. There are always restraints once you are part of the game.
And people in the north are no better off than anyone down here when it comes to any of the key issues that Sinn Féin focus on, including housing where the waiting list is over 40,000.
What happened yesterday was that while the Shinners could still claim that they “would have” spent several more billion, they were basically reduced to nit-picking. Two of their main demands that were not of course implemented and were never likely to be were the cap on rents and the reduction of energy bills to what they had been last Summer.
As was pointed out even by neutral commentators, the reduction of energy bills would require the state paying the difference to private companies – and not even Irish owned companies, in the case of Bord Gáis. Something which Sinn Féin said last week it has no intention of changing, which a real indication of how “radical” they are.
As for the rent caps, when it was put to Pearse Doherty that this would mean even more small private landlords leaving the market and selling the houses they currently rent out, he seemed to suggest that the state, through the local authorities, might buy them. That is just ludicrous. There are, off the top of my head, around 200,000 people who might fit into that category? If they were all to sell on the understanding that the state was going to buy them out, that would cost how much? €50 billion, maybe €60 billion?
Despite all of that, Sinn Féin’s ace in the hole remains housing, and unless the same sort of people who were broadly happy with the tax and other provisions contained in the Budget, but who are currently unable to buy their own home and are still facing high and rising rents, start to see something positive on that front, then Sinn Féin’s electoral star will remain high in the firmament.
Then some day, someone from one of the opposition parties will perhaps be berating Pearse for only increasing the dole by a fiver instead of a tenner. Thus it has always been.