THE considered view of more than a few media commentators was that the Budget announced by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan this week was partly about the continuing economic recovery and partly about the next general election. It was ever thus with Budgets unveiled within shouting distance of election time. The governing party that ignores the prospects of its candidates when making decisions about the nations’s finances within 18 months of polling day has yet to be founded.
The most recent opinion polls show Fine Gael still out in front as the biggest party, with Sinn Fein almost neck and neck, Fianna Fail still well behind in third place and Labour making slight gains after its leadership change. Such a performance by the dominant party of government more than three years into a time of serious austerity is certainly unusal. It has much to do with the failure of Fianna Fail to resurrect itself after the 2011 election disaster, but surely the main reason for the relatively strong Fine Gael showing is the opinion of much of the general public that the economic recovery has been shrewdly managed by Mr Noonan. His personal rating is the highest of any minister – quite remarkable when the past three years have brought considerable financial pain to most of us.
In some quarters the respect for the Finance Minister is grudging, but with this week’s measures officially marking the end of austerity and many of next year’s Budget measures already written in stone, the evidence is overwhelming that the country is bouncing back strongly.
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, must be grateful for the chain of events that led to him turning to Mr Noonan, after staving off an internal revolt. Will Mr Noonan run again in Limerick, and reap the reward for his stewardship? Only time will tell. But one thing seems certain. Unless the optimism that underpinned this week’s Budget proves misjudged – very unlikely, at this remove – then quite a few Fine Gael backbenchers and perhaps even a few from Labour will now be re-elected when they might have faced political oblivion if the economy had been in less capable hands.