Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Lenihan motivated by one thing only: the next election

The firm, even-tempered delivery of the Budget by Brian Lenihan was impressive. In style, it represented the fine performance of a potential leader. The man has his father's ability to make a hopeless and desperate set of circumstances look defensible. He did even better than his old man, and in an area of responsibility that Lenihan Senior never enjoyed.

He also did far better than his own party leader, Brian Cowen, whose sour demeanour seems imbued with suspicion and fatigue and whose aggressive approach lacks both the style and class of his Minister for Finance. Lenihan went on to face the verbal music on radio and in TV appearances, where he was castigated by the common man, and managed that with tact, understanding and a kind of blind self-confidence that was all the more astonishing because of the emptiness of what he had to say.

His Budget was unimpressive, and that is putting it generously. He is floundering as badly as his leader, but doing it with surreal elegance. He has clearly not spent the two years of our economic decline planning real reform or change.

To give one example, he is still flummoxed about the property tax. I wrote in the early summer about this, explaining the need for it and suggesting that it should be initiated swiftly. Self-assessment by house owners could achieve it swiftly. I still believe this to be the best way to begin the process of restoring domestic rates.

If estate agents value houses for sale on a single visit, why not value them for tax purposes? Such a decision would restore employment to an important sector -- that of real estate -- and bring in revenue quickly, restructuring an important lost measure of wealth. It would reflect, too, the economic reality of our position, which simply does not accord with Lenihan's confident assertion that the worst is over.

The worst might have been over -- only might, if the minister's three Budgets, and this one in particular, had done any class of a job on the country's economic plight. But, like Cowen and other ministers, he seems to be floundering around, trying to set up options for himself and his party, should there be a glimmer of change in the political landscape offering an election opportunity.

I don't see such opportunities. But I know the Fianna Fail mind and, outrageous as it may seem, believe them quite capable of setting the country's recovery behind the noxious idea that they might continue to govern us into the foreseeable future. That is Lenihan's motive. That, too, is the way his party would interpret the undoubted improvement he would represent over the present leader.

I think and hope the Irish people are too angry, too disappointed and too embarrassed about the shambles of being governed by such a dismal crew to take this; and that their revenge will be the critical factor, despite the lack of sufficient public support for the alternative. But I am not so sure. We have a gullible electorate and it has been regularly duped in recent years.

Even so, I was not wrong last time -- only the Greens, unbelievably, saved Fianna Fail and have suffered a deserved annihilation as a result.

I was wrong over the second Lisbon Referendum, because of the deep dishonesty of Fianna Fail, the biased presentation of the facts by the constitutionally appointed Referendum Commission, and the inane approach adopted by Labour and Fine Gael. And though this may seem extraneous to the patchwork of government actions within the Budget, it is far from the case.

As David McWilliams pointed out in the Irish Independent on Thursday, the basic budgetary arguments do not hold together. We have no reason to trust either Lenihan or his Department of Finance in telling us we have passed the worst, when neither they nor Fianna Fail's ministers have been reliable in any forecasting. Furthermore, there are no grounds for anticipating growth, and none for government spending to increase. In fact, it will fall.

Within Europe we are in a danger zone, along with Greece. Our foolish dedication to ever-closer union with a Post-Lisbon Treaty Europe and our disadvantageous status within the eurozone have deprived us of the logical solution, which is currency devaluation, and confronted us with the much harder road to the competitiveness essential to our survival. This is the road of cutting pay, profits and pensions for years to come. There is no clear recognition of this in the fumbling content of Lenihan in that Budget speech he gave with such debonair assurance.

The point is academic. Devaluation works, when it does -- and it is a once-off facility which has to work when used -- precisely because it lowers pay, wealth, everything, across the board; lessening imports, because they are more expensive, and encouraging exports. It is why we should have our own currency. Devaluation leads to something we cannot have -- real gains in productivity restoring our standing in the world marketplace.

While the Irish temperament is unlikely to support riots on the Greek level, it is clear that intolerant bodies of opinion are going to create difficult opposition to such a course. Not to worry: Lenihan has already capitulated by believing we have turned this huge corner, when no such thing at all has happened.

Is it not strange that Irish trade union leaders who supported our joining the Eurozone a decade ago, thus removing the only weapon for relatively painless pay cuts, are now threatening militancy to defend the indefensible?

It is an added burden that, if the dollar and the pound, in our two biggest markets, fall against the euro, we will remain as uncompetitive inside the eurozone as we are today.