Wednesday, December 13, 2006

BERTIE AHERN’S moment of true political genius during this term of Government was realising he had to give Charlie McCreevy the flick.

Ivan Yates found the phrase for it when he reminded us on RTE's The Week in Politics last Sunday week that eaten bread is soon forgotten. And that was McCreevy’s problem. What he had been so right for in 1997, he was so wrong for seven years later.

Was he killed off by the Frankenstein he himself created to ethically cleanse civil servants from the capital? Was he killed off by the lousy by-election, local election and European election results in 2004?

Or was he killed off by a leader whose control of him was as complete as Mick McCarthy’s over Roy Keane? In all likelihood, it was combination of all of the above. With Bertie nothing is ever as neat as a Colonel Plum-type operation with a candlestick in the sonservatory.

To be sure, here was a leader who innately knew — without being exactly able to say why — that his unpredictable star player was on the wane and had to go. And that he needed an honest grafter to fill the gap.

Timing was everything. And cometh the hour, cometh the Beast. An early departure for McCreevy allowed his favoured successor Brian Cowen sufficient time to make his mark. On Wednesday, Cowen presented his third Budget speech as if it was part of a continuum, as if he had been there forever… Charlie who?

And his budget speech was some feat. The text was that of a leader-in-waiting. The delivery was that of an altar server who’s just received communion, all downcast eyes and humble piety.

Cowen is such a masterful spinner that he often appears completely unspun. He hit all the right buttons on Wednesday in reaching out to all the key constituencies that Fianna Fáil will need to bring them home next year — and getting there firstest with the mostest was never so easy, what with all the sleáms of money he had sloshing around him.

His greatest trick of all was presenting the biggest giveaway election budget of all time as if it wasn’t an election budget at all.

He didn’t go on and on about all the great things the Government has done since 1997. He didn’t strut, he didn’t showboat, he didn’t patronise people about how well we are doing.

The balancing act was a subtle one. Dropping the top tax rate by 1% is a measure that helps the better off. The semantics for that became “rewarding work”.

But just in case anyone got the notion that it’s Government for the rich by the rich, there was the clever little increase in the health levy for those earning over €100,000.

“This extra money will help fund services such as long-term care initiatives for the elderly. We need to act now to secure such funds and I believe it is only right that those best able to afford it make an increased contribution.”

That sounds great until you realise that they’ll actually be making a decreased contribution, having benefited from tax cuts.

The most resonant phrases though was one that encapsulated the Fianna Fáil approach since Inchydoney and ones that you’d never imagine forming on the lips of McCreevy. They related to the social welfare changes.

“One of the measures of a true republic is the strength of its support for those on low incomes…the Government does not see economic growth as an end in itself.”

It would have been fatuous for any of the opposition parties to quibble with the generous increase in pension and social welfare payments. And, in fairness, none did.

But the main asks from Cowen required action on two conflicting fronts. He had to appeal to the all the voters who demanded what’s in it for me? And he had to appeal to all the voters who demanded what’s in it for the poor, the unemployed and the elderly? The paradox was that in most cases it was the same voters who were asking both questions. With one stroke, he had to satisfy their greed and also salve their consciences.

And the problem with that is that it took up the bulk of spending: some €2.6 billion of an estimated €3.7bn. For everything else, it was a case of cutting the cloth to suit the measure.

The much-trumpeted greening of Fianna Fáil turned out to be tentative and half-assed. The €270 million spend on carbon credits was a roundabout admission of failure on our Kyoto commitment.

Maybe we were missing the point. It was a green budget alright. Plenty of greenbacks.

And in Cowen, Bertie Ahern had the perfect minister for bringing Fianna Fáil to its green and republican roots.

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