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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 15, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

    Cowen & Co in Freefall

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Politics can be a fickle business. After his innovative and decisive action in apparently preventing a partial collapse of the banking system, Brian Cowen’s popularity soared. If an opinion poll had been held at that point in time, his ratings would in all likelihood have been astronomical.

    The decision to bring forward the Budget also had a smack of decisive leadership. People like that, particularly at the onset of a crisis. But bringing the Budget forward may be one of the reasons the detail wasn’t well thought-out.

    Cowen’s predecessor Bertie Ahern was very good at seeing around corners and as an indefatigable canvasser and knocker-on-doors, even when there was no election in sight, he would in all probability have known any move to introduce limits on the provision of medical cards to the over-70s was fraught with danger.

    Cowen & Co rushed in where the “Bert” would have feared to tread. The over-70s are unlike other groups outside the workforce (the social welfare classes if you like) in that they are highly-politicised, generally well-educated – and they vote.

    Fianna Fáil have generally been very good at keeping this sector of the population on side. The medical card fiasco suggested the Soldiers of Destiny may be losing their touch.

    The education cuts, serious though they were for those affected by them, failed to achieve the same level of political traction. But then we had the cervical cancer vaccine issue which, despite protestations to the contrary, still came across badly and led to another TD – Dr Jim McDaid – withholding his support from the Government.

    Now we have the Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll which is the worst-ever performance by a Government since the paper began its surveys many years ago. You would normally expect a poor poll-rating after an austerity budget,  and that provides a certain amount of comfort to the administration in power, but these figures were outside that comfort-zone. They were simply disastrous  (Satisfied with Government: 18 Per Cent; Dissatisfied: 76 Per Cent; for more information on the poll, click here.)

    All is not lost, say Government supporters. Look at Gordon Brown’s miraculous recovery from his political death-bed, they say. Sorry folks but, to continue with these morbid analogies, you  may be whistling past the graveyard.

    The Taoiseach’s personal style has now become an issue. I wasn’t in the Dáil chamber the other morning when Cowen had his latest confrontation with the Opposition but a colleague tells me that when he unleashed his inner Rottweiler on them, the faces on the Fine Gael front-bench broke into broad grins: “We’ve provoked him again.” It’s the kind of thing that comes across very badly on the Nine O’Clock News.

    The Government’s hope is that people will finally absorb the lesson that the economy is in dire straits and we need drastic remedial action which will include cuts and savings that may appear harsh but are in fact necessary. When the “Nimbyism” (Not In My Back Yard) about different cuts finally fades away, the polls will begin to turn and it will be safe to go to the country, or so FF and the Greens are hoping.

    A general election is not technically required for another four years but the way Government support is eroding in the Dáil, we are likely to see one before that. It’s little more than six months to the local and European elections and if the Government gets a hammering, which seems quite likely at this stage, it will further erode Cowen’s authority.

    Would anyone else do a better job? Enda Kenny is a good grass-roots politician but still has to register properly at the national level and his personal poll rating has declined. Will FF ditch their leader in favour of someone else – Dermot Ahern or Micheal Martin perhaps? And why is Labour down one point at a time of unprecedented discontent with the Government (admittedly their leader’s rating has increased)?

    Whoever was in power, the broad thrust of economic and budgetary policy would be very similar. Cut, cut and cut again and hope the weather improves on the international front. This Government’s twin problems are: 1) Lack of political sensitivity due to being somewhat out of touch with the people; 2) Deficiencies in personal political style and communications skills: they need to look, talk and act more like leaders.

    No wonder people gaze with such envy at the United States just now. Barack Obama oozes charisma, sophistication and style from every pore. And it has to be said that it is hard to think of anyone in Irish politics who  compares with the President-Elect in these respects.

    The level of grumbling with Cowen in media circles continues to grow. There is no particular focus, as there was with Bertie at the Mahon Tribunal when journalists virtually made careers out of picking and probing at particular pieces of evidence. But from talking to  a wide range of colleagues working for very different outlets, one can detect that whatever goodwill there was towards Cowen & Co has started to evaporate. It’s another ominous development for the Government.  

    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent

    • dealga says:

      At the time of the election the financial meltdown was obviously not on most people’s cards, however an imminent and sharp downturn in Ireland’s economic fortunes was.

      Why on earth senior FFers didn’t take the opportunity to sacrifice a few backbenchers, jettison the PDs and let a rainbow coalition take the blame for the recession is beyond me. They could then have floated back into power just in time for a recovery.

      Now, however, they’ll be out on their ear when the worst of the current crisis is over.

    • Deaglán says:

      DEALGA: I don’ t think there’s any recorded instance of FF voluntarily giving up power. That’s not how they think!

    • robespierre says:

      As someone who works in business I think his judgment is questionable and there is no doubt that the civil service is running the administration. There is no vision and no separation of tactical decisions from strategic ones. The Tánaiste is out of her depth and like the Taoiseach no longer speaks the English language. One of your antecedents in journalism, George Orwell, would smirk broadly at some of the language being used by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste.

      I recently re-read the essay, Politics and the English Language by Orwell. It is still remarkably relevant today and if you allow your mind to drift between 1984, the essay and how the current Cabinet are communicating you really begin to wonder what all the PR people are there for. Surely they should be making the communication crisper and more concise. That defines Obama’s style. Short, sharp, definite sentences.

      There should be no fear in the truth or quite simply giving a short clear answer to a question.

    • Deaglán says:

      In my experience PR people, no matter who they are working for, are not usually very good at communicating their message. They are the most likely to go for windy phrases and jargon terms such as “going forward”. Crisp, concise sentences? Forget it.

    • Brian Boru says:

      General Election long before then? I have my doubts on that, but not because I believe the government will necessarily survive. I think as with 1994 with Labour, the Greens may fear such an election, and prefer crossing the floor and bringing FG to power instead. An election now would mean meltdown for the party, especially for Ciaran Cuffe, Mary White and John Gormley. The last seats in these constituencies were very tight last time, and they would not have held their seats without Rainbow-transfers. Well they can kiss those goodbye now. A General Election cannot be called without the President agreeing to it, and he/she is only bound to agree to it if the Taoiseach has the support of a majority in Dail Eireann. I can’t see Fianna Fail calling an election as they would likewise face meltdown. Here’s how I see it turning out – the Greens will eventually find they have had enough of these cuts and will pull out of Government with FF and vote against them in a confidence-motion. They then work out a deal with FG, Labour and a couple of Independents perhaps including Sinn Fein. Under the deal, a Rainbow govt will be formed, but the Greens will only play ball if Enda Kenny agrees not to call a General Election. Remember what the Constitution says – the Taoiseach can only force the president to call a General Election if the former has the support of a majority in Dail Eireann. That’s how I see things panning out.

    • Markham says:

      For anyone having trouble deciphering the government’s message, I present this quote from Crystal Clear Cowen, as discussed on the Tubridy Show last week:

      “Let me be clear, now. And I know it’s difficult, the modification that’s already been enunciated was that are consistent with the budget parameters to get us around this problem.

      And I’m just asking, but I would make the point that the very important point for people to internalise precisely the lightning-rod issue in the way which respects the broad parameters of the budget arithmetic.”

      Glad to have cleared that up.

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