Dressing mutton as lamb is never easy, but try applying cosmetics to a budget of swingeing cuts. Last Wednesday, Brian Lenihan cut €4bn from exchequer spending. He required some cover to deflect from the harsher aspects of his budget. Hitting low-paid public servants, the unemployed and others, such as carers, who toil behind closed doors, was certain to prompt angry reaction. So Lenihan applied a few cosmetic touches to his budget, putting a gloss on the ugly face of pain.
The most cynical of these strokes was to reduce excise duty on alcohol. This was presented as a tool to dissuade shoppers from fleeing to the north for their booze. The cut amounted to 12 cents on a pint, 60 cents on a bottle of wine and €2.75 on a litre-bottle of spirits.
If the objective really was to stem the flow of cross-border shopping, then the minister has a problem with sums. According to a CSO survey, 44% of cross-border shoppers travel for alcohol. Most of this alcohol is bought from large supermarkets in towns such as Newry, and sells for over 30% less than in the Republic. A 60 cent reduction in a bottle of wine typically priced at €8.40, represents a reduction of only 7%.
On Thursday, the general manager of the Quays shopping centre in Newry, Cathal Austin, pointed out that a bottle of McGuigan's wine is still €2 cheaper there after the cut in excise duty. The move was little more than cosmetic.
On the downside, all surveys conducted in the area show that a reduction in the price of alcohol leads to an increase in consumption, which in turn will inevitably lead to more social and medical fall-out from the abuse of the drug.
Far from attempting to dissuade shoppers from going north, the real intent of the move may well have been to distract from the harsher elements of the budget. The dole is being cut. Low-paid workers are having their wages slashed. But sure, those among them who enjoy a pint have the small pleasure of passing less copper across the bar counter for every scoop. And if you count them all up, it could amount to an extra pint or two in the week, a small reward in this vale of tears. The bread and circus roadshow has come to town.
Whether or not that was the intention behind the move, a vox pop on the RTE Nine O'Clock News on Wednesday confirmed that many men, at least, have taken some small solace from a reduction in the price of the pint.
Cosmetics were also behind the much-heralded car scrappage scheme. Like the drinks industry, the motor trade exercises considerable political pull. The new scheme will award €1,500 to anybody scrapping a car over 10 years old and buying a new, low-emissions model.
Like lowering the price of drink at a time of recession, introducing a scrappage scheme is a bit Irish. We don't have a motor manufacturing industry in this country. Of all the services industries that could do with a stimulus, the motor trade would come very far down the list in terms of value per job. And how many motorists, in these straitened times, who are driving a 10-year-old car are likely to be able to afford a brand new one? But dress it up and it looks as if something is being done.
One area that was crying out for cosmetics was the salaries and conditions of those at the top of the heap. In a budget where public servants on as little as €15,000 were being hit for 5% of their salaries, it was necessary at least to give the impression that everybody was feeling a little pinch. Basic fairness demanded no less.
To this end, Lenihan introduced the findings of the Review Body on Higher Remuneration in the Public Sector. The report recommended a reduction in salary of 20%, 15% and 10% for the various levels covered by the body's review. Brian Cowen stumped up €57,000, or 20%, while his ministers lost 15% of their stipend.
A casual observer might have paused over that news and reflected that ministers were now down that 15% plus the 10% reduction they took earlier this year. But no, the 15% includes that 10%. Lenihan was fishing for a second bite on the PR line.
Social and family affairs minister Mary Hanafin attempted to gloss over the spin on Morning Ireland on Thursday, claiming the 15% cut was now "formal, legal and permanent". In reality, the ministerial cut on Wednesday was just 5% – much the same, as was pointed out, as the cut applied to the worker who cleans the ministerial office.
It's a far cry from the last time the country found itself in such turbulent financial times. When Eamon de Valera took office in 1932, he immediately cut politicians' pay by 33% and the taoiseach's salary by 40%. Those were the days when politicians lived in the real world inhabited by hard-pressed citizens.
Politicians weren't the only ones who reached for kudos for taking a pay cut earlier this year. The heads of semi-state bodies and many of the most senior civil servants also agreed to pay cuts. They also got the chance to make it real one more time, being projected as taking a serious hit when this time around it was in fact less than the average cut.
At least some at the top took a cut. Others, like the judges, were left with the option of looking into their hearts and deciding for themselves whether or not it would be in the national interest that they reduce their salaries.
Lenihan declared that the salaries of judges remain untouchable because of a constitutional provision prohibiting the reduction of judges' pay.
"For the same reason the pension levy was not applied to the judiciary, though many judges have contributed an amount on a voluntary basis," he said.
Here also, a cosmetic brushstroke was called for.
"Since the review body would have considered a reduction of judicial salaries, I have decided that there will be no increase to judges' pay during the lifetime of this government."
Wow! That will sock it to them. The notion that anybody will be getting a pay rise in the lifetime of this government is far-fetched to begin with. In the first instance, the government's lifetime is precariously balanced, and even if it were to go the full term, few believe the economy will have recovered sufficiently to merit pay increases. But Lenihan's pledge sounded tough, and glossed over the scenario that not everybody is being forced to ship some pain.
The other nod in the direction of fairness was to impose a €200,000 levy on tax exiles. The levy will be peanuts to most of those who have moved offshore for tax reasons, but the optics are what it is all about.
Lenihan's budget was full of attempts to portray the government's actions as spreading the pain fairly throughout society. The truth, of course, bears no resemblance to such an interpretation.