The three party leaders delivered their post-budget statements to the Dáil and then battened down the hatches in advance of the onslaught. They knew what was coming: a hammering on housing, health and everything else besides. But they couldn’t scarper immediately as that would have been a discourtesy to the leader of the main Opposition party.
So they slumped in their seats and endured while Mary Lou McDonald tore strips off them.
“Now we know that the emperors have no clothes,” she cried triumphantly, without even averting her eyes. “All three of them.” We didn’t know where to look. Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan took no notice, well used by now to the forceful tones of Sinn Féin’s one-woman castigation chorus. But her party colleagues, out in force for the occasion, were enthralled.
Twenty of them, as many as the restricted seating arrangement allowed, putting on a show of strength in support of their leader. It looked good on screen, particularly when viewed against the turnout on the Government side.
The aforementioned nudey emperors, along with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister of State for Europe Thomas Byrne, were the sole Coalition representatives. The rows of empty seats around them were in stark contrast to the well-packed benches across the floor. In reality, there was never any chance of Government TDs making a detour to the chamber to hear the Sinn Féin leader call them names for half an hour. But for the all-important “optics” of the occasion, perhaps the Government side should have hunted in a few backbenchers to counteract the display opposite.
Labour’s Alan Kelly was the only other politician present and that was because he was next up to speak. He rose to his feet, the sound of enthusiastic applause and stomping feet ringing in his ears, normally a most welcome and gratifying eruption for a party leader to experience. But not this time.
The hearty applause was from Sinn Féin for Mary Lou’s resounding denunciation of the Government and its budget and the stomping feet belonged to those same foot soldiers noisily galloping up the stairs as they rushed for the door.
On the other side, Micheál, Leo and Paschal made a break for it too, scuttling up the steps at speed. Poor Alan. Watching the exodus, waiting to speak. “Thanks for stayin’, lads. Appreciate it!” he called to the rapidly receding backs of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.
Meanwhile Sean Sherlock, the Labour TD for Cork East, had slipped into a seat behind his leader so he wouldn’t be on his own. He noticed the Green Party leader hadn’t moved yet. “Ah, fair play to Eamon, at least Eamon is staying,” he said.
“In fairness to Eamon, I was just about to compliment him,” replied Alan. So Eamon Ryan, feeling obliged to stay, held on for Deputy Kelly’s full speech. He was rewarded with a stern dressing-down for the manner in which the budget details were leaked prior to the event.
“It’s insulting to this House, it’s insulting to the Irish people and has to stop,” lectured the Labour leader. “Now everybody may have been at it, but I think everybody knows it has to stop.”
It is unclear whether the former minister for the environment was referring to “everybody” in the current Government or “everybody” who has ever served in cabinet and been involved in drawing up a budget.
Mary Lou, who had been gathering up her papers and preparing to leave, paused, looking bemused. Where was Alan going with this? We cannot tolerate the “farcical situation” where the Ceann Comhairle is telling people they must not remove documents from the chamber until the speeches are made when the contents have already been comprehensively leaked, he fulminated.
“It’s a joke! So it has to stop.” As is his wont, he then began hinting at darker goings-on behind the scenes, citing “what happened with Zapponegate” and the subsequent freedom of information requests involving text messages and the like.
“Ye’re only creating a stick to beat yourselves with, because somewhere along the line here, somebody has been messaging people to get this information out there and if that becomes public, you’ll all have big problems . . .”
Having been told to “feed that back” to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, Eamon Ryan didn’t want to appear rude to Social Democrat co-leader Catherine Murphy, so he stayed on for a little while when it was her turn to talk – before finally making good his escape.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil that new rent caps are on the way. The way things are going, the Minister for Housing is going to end up with more caps than Robbie Keane
“In truth, this was a bits-and-pieces budget” which didn’t tackle the big issues facing Irish people, said Catherine. She said she was particularly struck by a line from Paschal Donohoe’s speech when he said: “For those worried about whether they can own a home or afford their rent, the budget will support you.”
She looked towards Minister of State Byrne, who was holding the fort on the Government side. “That’s a breathtaking statement. The Minister is gaslighting the nation.”
Perhaps the best line of the day belonged to Mick Barry. “So the Taoiseach told the Dáil this morning that new rent caps are on the way. The way things are going, the Minister for Housing is going to end up with more caps than Robbie Keane.”
The People Before Profit-Solidarity TD was very unimpressed by the budget, “and it was certainly met with a collective ‘meh’ by the people”.
Similarly unimpressed was Rural Independent TD Michael Collins, who condemned the Government’s “anti-rural” budget as “a complete and utter letdown for the people”. What with having to import briquettes from Colombia and peat from Latvia, the Green tail was wagging the Government dog.
“You have created a massive, massive unresolved urban-rural divide,” Collins told the Dáil, fuming like a damp sod of turf on the fire. “We can’t carry Dublin on our backs!”
There will be no “mending” until the Government is removed, said the Cork South-West TD.
“Nobody wants an election, but . . .”