The coalition 26-County government has been accused of using this week’s annual budget announcements as an attempt regain popular support after comprehensively losing two by-elections while 100,000 people marched in Dublin against the hated new water charges.
Claiming the era of austerity budgets is over, scores of minor tax and spending changes were announced on Tuesday. Benefits were marginal, but the message was clear: the government is on an election footing.
Despite vaulting real estate valuations, particularly in the capital, the public mood remains deeply hostile. Billing is underway for the water charges, which have been described as Ireland’s “poll tax”. Tenants across Ireland have been threatened with eviction if they fail to pay the charge, including tenants of some local councils.
Meanwhile, there have been continuing revelations of cronyism and greed at Irish Water, the new semi-state company set up to process the payments, with reports of company officials helping themselves to five-figure “performance-related awards”.
Despite the government’s announcement this week of a hundred euro tax credit for water bills and a similar allowance for certain social welfare recipients, the move was described as inadequate by Sinn Fein.
Meanwhile, other highly touted tax and spending changes will mainly benefit those on the highest income bracket. Sinn Fein finance spokesman Pearse Doherty accused the government of failing to listen when drafting the Budget.
Mr Doherty said it was hoped it would rebuild the economy, renew society and repair communities, but this did not happen. It was a two-tier Budget, he said, with tax cuts for the better-off while the rest were “left to rot”.
“The more people hear of economic recovery the more it jars with the reality of their own lives that are not getting any better,” he added.
While there was a recovery taking place, it was for the few and not for the many, he said.
Mr Doherty said what was needed was 1 billion euro to get to grips with the social housing and homelessness crisis. “That is the kind of urgent response that the housing and homeless crisis needs,” he added. “Once again, it is a case of too little, too late from Fine Gael and Labour.”
He said that when the cuts to the household benefit package was added to the cost of water charges, pensioners and people with disability were already hundreds of euro worse off.
“The idea that 100 euro would in any way compensate for what you have done to these people is an insult, Minister,” he added.
Mr Doherty said there would be almost 200,000 unemployed people on the live register with zero support towards the cost of water. He said that while any increase in child benefit was to be welcomed, the paltry five euro increase did not conceal the fact that there had been cuts in that area. Struggling families would barely notice the increase, he added.
The one-week Christmas bonus of a 25% increase in social welfare assistance did not hide the fact that people were struggling all year, he said.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald was later ordered out of the Dail after clashing with the speaker of the Dail, Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett, during the Budget debate.
When Barrett said she should only direct her remarks to the Ceann Comhairle, under the rules of the House, Ms McDonald said his intervention was “biased”.
The arcane parliamentary protocol of referring to other TDs only in the third person has declined in recent years, and is normally ignored.
When Mr Barrett asked her to withdraw her remarks, she refused to do so. She was ordered from the House and, as she left the chamber, she said the incident was “ridiculous”.
More seriously for the government were the unprecedented numbers who turned out to oppose the implementation of water charges last weekend. Estimates put the crowd at between 80,000 and 120,000.
At the GPO, a Resistance Choir sang ‘Now Is The Time For Rage’. Among the speakers were Audrey Clancy of the Edenmore Says No campaign who advised people not to either fill the ‘water forms’ or pay the bills; and Clare Daly, Independent TD who said: ‘You are not getting any more blood from these stones’; Jimmy Kelly of UNITE and community activist John Bisset.
The talented Irish poet Stephen Murphy recited the moving poem, “Was it for this?”. Among the chants were, “Enda in your ivory tower, this is called people power” and “From the rivers to the sea, Irish water will be free”.
Meanwhile, the election of a hardline socialist and an anti-establishment independent in two parliamentary by-elections last weekend was also being hailed as a dramatic setback for the coalition.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the results showed that the Dublin government had lost its mandate.
“It is clear that the government is detached from the reality of life facing ordinary citizens and struggling families and in denial as to the impact of their policies,” the Louth TD said.