It could’ve descended into a bun fight (or a croissant fight at least), given the podium was awash with politicians of a particularly feisty persuasion – Joan, Mary Lou and Lucinda Creighton, plus Fianna Fáil’s Mary White and Fine Gael’s Catherine Noone, who’ll both be scrapping for Dáil seats in two tough constituencies during the Whenever Election.
At the same post-Budget debate last year, Joan and Mary Lou clashed with gusto – as they are wont to do on a regular basis during Leaders’ Questions every Thursday morning. But this year, there wasn’t a provocative peep out of any of them. They didn’t so much tangle, as politely beg to differ.
So what wrought such a change? Well, for a start, the Tánaiste opened proceedings with a five-minute speech, but was obliged to depart before the questions-and-answers session with the audience, removing the main government heavyweight (in the strictly political sense of the word) from the fray.
But it’s more than that – there’s been a noticeable flagging of feistiness among all the denizens of Leinster House in the latter half of this week. Everyone is suffering from a severe bout of No-Election Malaise.
For weeks on end, everyone was up to high doh over Enda doing a stealth run to the Park after what was clearly destined to be a voter-friendly Budget.
Posters were being printed, candidates feverishly added to tickets, rows and brouhahas were breaking out on the airwaves between potential election rivals.
The whole country could’ve been rattling at velocity towards hell in a handcart (again), and nobody would’ve paid a blind bit of notice. They were all crouched tensely in the starting blocks, waiting for the Taoiseach to fire the starting gun.
Except he didn’t. And now the adrenaline has evaporated like the World Cup hopes of the French rugby team. There wasn’t even a decent dust-up after the Budget.
So now, political opponents have packed away their powder in order to keep it dry until Whenever. Thus the IBEC debate, moderated by the Irish Independent’s legal editor Dearbhail McDonald, was a most civilised affair.
“It is very pleasant to see so many men in the audience,” observed a jovial Joan at the start of her speech to the impressive attendance for early doors (8am) on a Friday.
But she still had one eye on the looming election, and made no bones about emphasising to her audience of businesspeople that the Budget had been “designed to get people back to work and help employers to expand”.
She pointed out, “The reductions in USC will benefit every family in work. I’ve increased as well in the Budget child benefit by €5 – I make no apologies for retaining it as a universal payment. It’s paid overwhelmingly to mothers.”
With that family-friendly trumpet-blowing completed, and having received applause from the rest of her political sisters except Lucinda, the Tánaiste left – taking the media temporarily with her for a doorstep interview outside, which can’t have pleased the following speaker, Mary Lou, one bit.
There were of course some differences of opinion – while the Renua leader was selling her party’s 23pc flat tax proposal, arguing it was a “progressive” move, the Sinn Féin deputy leader was furiously shaking her head.
“There isn’t anybody who doesn’t pay tax, unless they’re in a hermetically-sealed cellar somewhere living on thin air and fair play to them,” reckoned Mary Lou, adding to some amusement: “I agree on one point only, probably, with Lucinda,” before going on to take a dig at the flat tax idea.
“I haven’t seen the figures, I assume they were costed by Eddie Hobbs.”
Lucinda swiftly jumped in. “Actually they were tax experts,” she retorted.
Mary White, Fianna Fáil’s candidate in the new constituency of Dublin Rathdown, didn’t pick a fight with any of her fellow panellists, but instead deplored what she regarded as the miserly Budget changes to inheritance tax.
Mindful perhaps of the leafiness of much of her south Dublin patch, she declared the threshold should be increased to €500,000, rather than the mere €280,000 granted in the Budget.
“This is a nasty, nasty stealth tax,” she declared.
Naturally, Fine Gael’s Catherine Noone defended the Budget.
“I believe it to have been a fair, even-handed budget,” she argued (politely).
Either everyone was stricken with No-Election Malaise – or perhaps that’s just how political women behave when the boy’s club isn’t around.