No drama as dull Paschal Dono­hoe de­fends his bud­get

The Fi­nance min­is­ter’s tra­di­tional bud­get Q&A with Sean O’Rourke is blandly smooth

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Mick Heaney

On Wed­nes­day, as Sean O’Rourke fin­ishes his Q&A with Min­is­ter for Fi­nance Paschal Dono­hoe, he sums up pro­ceed­ings with suc­cinct if bru­tal hon­esty.

“There was no ex­cite­ment, there was no drama, you had no sur­prises,” O’Rourke says rue­fully. Ad­mit­tedly, the pre­sen­ter is re­fer­ring to the bud­get de­liv­ered by Dono­hoe the previous day, but he might as well be de­scrib­ing the Min­is­ter’s per­for­mance on To­day with Sean

O’Rourke (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days). Dono­hoe is there for his Q&A phone-in ses­sion with the pub­lic, a long­time bud­get-day rit­ual. But on this show­ing at least, it’s a cus­tom near­ing ob­so­les­cence, as the Min­is­ter fields the ques­tions with pol­ished if bland com­pe­tence.

It makes the lis­tener pine for the bruis­ing ap­pear­ances by the likes of Michael Noo­nan and Brian Leni­han dur­ing the good old days of aus­ter­ity, in much the way that old Lon­don­ers are nos­tal­gic about the Blitz.

That’s not to say there aren’t tricky ques­tions. One caller, Mal­colm, won­ders why his ¤5 ben­e­fits in­crease is be­ing de­layed by six months, when his rent has al­ready in­creased by ¤100 a month. “You’ve done a lot to get the coun­try off the floor, but done noth­ing for those who are still on the their knees,” Mal­colm says.

Tellingly, Dono­hoe ac­cepts the plau­dit. “Thanks for ac­knowl­edg­ing that,” he says, but then loftily in­forms Mal­colm that there are other call­ers who have needs too.

Lor­can, a Cavan farmer, raises con­cerns that the in­creased 6 per cent rate on com­mer­cial stamp duty also ap­plies to agri­cul­tural land. The Min­is­ter tries to re­as­sure the caller by high­light­ing a 1 per cent rate in “con­san­guin­ity re­lief”. But Lor­can is unim­pressed by the com­pen­satory mea­sures in “that big word you’ve used there”, spark­ing au­di­ble chuck­les from Dono­hoe, who wrig­gles off the hook with a glib re­mark about try­ing to pro­nounce the word in his bud­get speech.

O’Rourke, for his part, doesn’t un­duly press his guest, largely ced­ing the field to his call­ers. Mean­while, for all his ad­mis­sions of fal­li­bil­ity, Dono­hoe gives off the same self-sat­is­fied air that has marked many a min­is­te­rial ra­dio ap­pear­ance since Leo Varad­kar be­came Taoiseach.

Cod-brand­ing

Just as Dono­hoe trots out the smug phrase cod-brand­ing Ire­land as the “Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity”, so too does Regina Do­herty, Min­is­ter for Em­ploy­ment and So­cial Pro­tec­tion, when she ap­pears on Morn­ing

Ire­land (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days) just be­fore the bud­get. Host Gavin Jen­nings in­ter­views Do­herty about the im­pact of cuts to lone-par­ent fam­ily ben­e­fits, which used to end when the youngest child turned 18, but now cease at age seven.

The Min­is­ter stoutly de­fends the pol­icy, re­fer­ring to a new re­port that em­ploy­ment has in­creased among sin­gle par­ents. She ma­noeu­vres past Jen­nings’s as­ser­tion that the pol­icy has ac­tu­ally in­creased the risk of poverty – “Let’s not split hairs,” Do­herty says – pre­fer­ring to say it has re­duced “wel­fare de­pen­dency”. This prompts an ob­vi­ous re­join­der from Jen­nings: “If you take away some­one’s wel­fare pay­ments, they can’t be de­pen­dent.”

But Do­herty is un­daunted. Her aim to pro­mote de­cent job prospects for lone par­ents is laud­able, but the lan­guage she uses about a pol­icy which even she ad­mits has “mixed re­sults” is gorm­lessly up­beat. Empty buzz­words such as “am­bi­tion”, “con­fi­dence” and, yes, “op­por­tu­nity” abound.

Do­herty also ap­prov­ingly notes that em­ploy­ment gets sin­gle moth­ers “out of their houses”, un­wit­tingly echo­ing Nor­man Teb­bit’s “on your bike” advice to the un­em­ployed.

At the end, Jen­nings re­minds Do­herty of a re­mark she pre­vi­ously made about wel­fare rates -– “Jay­sus, I couldn’t live on ¤198 a week” – and asks if she could do so on ¤5 more. Do­herty re­sponds by snip­pily ask­ing if Jen­nings knows what is in the bud­get, as she doesn’t. (As ex­pected, an ad­di­tional ¤5 pay­ment is later an­nounced.) It’s a disin­gen­u­ous coda that rather sours Do­herty’s sunny spin.

Breezily dis­mis­sive

One pos­si­ble re­sponse to the po­lit­i­cal pan­tomime of bud­get day is sim­ply to ig­nore it. On the Ray

D’Arcy Show ( RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days), the host sounds breezily dis­mis­sive as he de­scribes the at­mos­phere in the news depart­ment: “It’s sort of like All-Ire­land day,” he chuck­les. Then again, D’Arcy’s air­time has been trun­cated by 40-odd min­utes to fa­cil­i­tate broad­casts from the Dáil, so he could just be an­noyed at that.

Though maybe not. D’Arcy hears the story of Tracy McGin­nis, a sin­gle mother of two chil­dren who is trapped in the pri­vate rental mar­ket, and con­trasts her sit­u­a­tion with the grand speeches in Le­in­ster House.

A former jour­nal­ist and ther­a­pist, Amer­i­can-born McGin­nis is now a full-time carer, look­ing af­ter her pro­foundly dis­abled son Bren­dan and his younger brother De­clan.

The de­tails of Bren­dan’s life-lim­it­ing con­di­tion are heart-rend­ing, as McGin­nis out­lines the med­i­ca­tion and con­stant care he re­quires from her: “I had to leave be­hind my ca­reer and, in many ways, my­self as an in­di­vid­ual.” But their bond is pal­pa­ble: she says that Bren­dan “teaches un­con­di­tional love”.

McGin­nis’s ac­com­mo­da­tion sit­u­a­tion also causes dis­tress. In her pri­vate rented house in Kil­dare, there isn’t enough room for Bren­dan’s wheel­chair to move prop­erly, while it is 45 min­utes away from De­clan’s school in Kilkenny, where she is on a 15-year wait­ing list for pub­lic hous­ing.

Mean­while, her ap­pli­ca­tion for a coun­cil-backed low-in­ter­est mort­gage has been turned down be­cause her in­come comes from wel­fare rather than em­ploy­ment, de­spite the se­cu­rity that own­er­ship would bring. She paints a pic­ture of quiet de­spair, all the worse be­cause the solution is tan­ta­lis­ingly ob­vi­ous yet out of reach.

It’s only one story, but it’s an in­dict­ment of our sup­posed “Repub­lic of Op­por­tu­nity”. As D’Arcy says, “If you want to get a mea­sure of a so­ci­ety, see how it treats its most vul­ner­a­ble.” Who says there’s no drama on bud­get day?

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