October 19 - Kenny bows to Noonan, the big chief

THE country has had seven tough budgets in a row, austerity fatigue has long since set in, and yet there is an urgent need to stimulate growth in an economy showing tentative signs of recovery, so the task facing Finance Minister Michael Noonan this time was akin to a balancing act.

THE country has had seven tough budgets in a row, austerity fatigue has long since set in, and yet there is an urgent need to stimulate growth in an economy showing tentative signs of recovery, so the task facing Finance Minister Michael Noonan this time was akin to a balancing act.

His task was to find another €2.5 billion and angry words have been spoken by some of those who will be picking up the tab, in particular the elderly and the young unemployed. One can see the logic of incentivizing those between the ages of 22 and 24 who are currently jobless to upskill through training courses rather than become resigned to their fate. And yet, cutting their welfare payments for those who continue to sign on to just €100 a week amounts to an open invitation to leave the country.

Not all had major grievances with Wednesday’s measures, however – indeed, far from it. At business breakfasts in Limerick and around the country the morning after Mr Noonan and his Labour Party sidekick Brendan Howlin had revealed the latest medicine, there were murmurings of approval. Decisons not to increase income tax for the so-called ‘coping classes’ and an apparent U-turn on increasing the 9% VAT rate for the tourism sector (not to mention newspapers) were widely welcomed.

Locally, the allocation of €6 million in funding to Limerick’s City of Culture 2014 programme was met with both satisfaction and relief. We must await details of the year’s celebrations, but there is enough in the kitty to ensure that the party is a memorable one, if the money is wisely spent. Certainly, the prospects for the year look considerably better than they did only a few months ago, when there were unspoken fears that inadequate funding would render it effectively a non-event.

After delivering three austerity budgets, Mr Noonan will hope to be in a position to dispense a little largesse this time next year.

The so-called giveaway budgets of the Celtic Tiger years are never coming back, and no sane person would want them, but Mr Noonan will be mindful that – all going well – he should be in a position put a few bob back in the pockets of the taxpayers and avoid any further pain for the most vulnerable in society.

Such an eventuality would complete one of the most extraordinary comebacks in Irish political history. Only a few years ago he seemed washed up, unlikely to even contest the 2011 general election. Now he says he plans to contest the next election and as things stand he is heading for a serious vote. Last weekend, at the South Court Hotel in Raheen, Noonan was the undisputed star of the Fine Gael conference.

His ability with the language – the capacity to explain complex things in a straightforward manner – endeared him to many as the country moved painfully towards exiting the bailout programme.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny prefers the ‘chairman’ style of leadership, and has relied enormously on the intellectual ballast provided by the man from Loughill. In Limerick last weekend, and on the budget day, Noonan – indisputably – was the chief to Kenny’s chairman.