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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 17, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Rope a dope?

    Harry McGee

    I am looking at Brian Cowen on the TV screen in the office, drudging through Taoiseach’s Questions. The Dáil this week has been like a burst balloon  or a wind without sails or an end-of-season clash between two mid-table teams.

    There has been a sense of tiredness – maybe it’s anti-climax – after the elections season and the emotion of the debate on the Ryan report. Nobody has whipped themselves into a froth of fury this week. There have been some more wringing of hands by parties (mainly the Greens) about the future and all the dreadful things that may be in store.

    What I intend to address today is the notion of the long view, the ability to look beyond the here and now, especially if the here and now means crisis.

    During the course of a five-year term, a government will invariably find itself in one of the following situations (recounted in journalese): facing a “humiliating climbdown”;  “an embarrassing u-turn”; “a melt-down”; a “deepest crisis”.

    So everytime a run-of-the-mill  political disaster faces the Government or the leader of the day, us political anoraks will say: “That looks very bad for the Government (or Brian Cowen or the Greens), doesn’t it?”

    Or else, we’ll appropriate the propaganda of the opposition and opine that the Government is limping along from crisis to crisis.

    And often – and especially after the events of the past few weekends – we will busily speculate on how long the Government can possibly last.

    Every Saturday in our newspaper, we carry pages from our archives. Last weekend, very appropriately, we carried the reports from the 1979 European elections that were lousy, just lousy, for the Fianna Fail Government run by Jack Lynch, which won just 35 per cent of the vote.

    The poor results may or may not have contributed to Lynch’s impromptu departure at the end of that year. Certainly, Joe Lynch in his seminal  Ireland 1912-1985  thinks so.

    “The public was truly a capricious mistress. Lynch himself treated the elections with a casualness so curious for so sensitive an electoral tactician that it becomes explicable only on the assumption that he had already decided definitely to retire in the near future and saw no reason to inflict one more gruelling campaign on himself”. (p.495)

    That was a real crisis. As was the mid-term election results for Fianna Fail and the Greens.

    But one of the lessons that I carried with me after the 2007 electionsis that many of the crises that seemed to down Bertie Ahern and his Government in the preceding five years did not make a whit of difference when it came to the General Election. Its poor local election results were forgotten. E-voting was forgotten. PPARS was forgotten. The nursing homes subvention crisis was forgotten. Even Bertie Ahern’s irregular and implausible financial arrangements was partially forgiven, if not forgotten.

    The question I am asking is this? Granted, the elections were a massive setback for the Government. But will all of this be forgotten by the time the next General Election takes place?

    To tease this out, I’ll make a number of points, none of which are conclusive.

    Brian Cowen has been criticised for poor communication skills. A colleague recently made the obvious observation that people can be very intelligent in some things and incredily stupid in others. Cowen’s abilities don’t compensate for his lack of consistency, his over-dour public tempterment, his lack of enthusiasm for the task in hand and his poor overall communications . For a long time I thought he was playing a long-game, doing the Mohammed Ali trick of rope-a-dope, taking all the flak for now. He reminded his Fianna Fail colleagues at the parliamentary party meeting last week that he had a thrree-year plan. Is he  playing a patient waiting game; timing the moment when he would come out with all guns blazing?  If he is doing that, it’s a high-risk strategy. Already he has lost so much ground, that few think he can make it up. I don’t think he can make it up. I think he knows it. But I bumped into a former political correspondent on the street at lunchtime, who’s a wise owl, and she’s convinced that Cowen has no sense of the hole he has dug for himself.

    As I’ve said in other postings, Cowen has the Mark of Cain about him. He’s the doctor at the bedside of the patient who has suffered a gunshot wound. In one hand he has the scalpel for the painful surgery that may nurse the patient back to health. But in the other hand (hidden behind his back) is the smoking gun that caused the injury in the first place. If Nama and all the austerity measures work, his legacy will still be as an assasin rather than as a surgeon.

    The Greens also took a huge hit at local level. It is obvious (especially in Dublin) that people voted against the party corporately, irrespective of how hard-working the councillor or candidate was on the ground. And for that, the party suffered disproportionately. The subtle argument that the Greens  weren’t a party to the poor decisons that fomented the property bubble and excess didn’t wash. They were regarded by the public as accomplices after the fact. They are small and less resilient than Fianna Fail and may not have the wherewithal to recover from all that.

    The other aspect is a cyclical one. Fianna Fail essentially achieved the rare phenonmenon of a third General Election win in a row in 2007, going against the historical grain. There is a belief that it should not have. However, Fine Gael were so weakened in 2002 (and Labour had also taken a biffing) that it hadn’t sufficiently recovered to prove itself as a real alternative. So in the last weeks of the campaign, when it came down to the crucial question, of which party was best equipped to lead the country into a period of economic uncertainty, Fianna Fail came through. I very much doubt that Fianna Fail will have the wherewithal to win a fourth election.

    It might seem a weird take but I believe that Fianna Fail can overcome this setback (but that does not go for the Greens to the same extent) but will still lose the next election. However, the recovery will be sufficient to restore its standing. As it enters opposition, it will not be weakened as terribly as Fine Gael was in 2002, which left it  waiting some seven years before returning to full strength.

    There are a couple of assumptions here. The coalition will have to survive the next 18 months which will be awful and will result in some very harsh and tough measues that will hurt people to the core. It will then have to gamble that the austerity measures will result in the so-called ‘green shoots’ emerging at the end of 2010, bringing the economy into growth mode (albeit more modestly) during 2011 and early 2012.

    Cowen will need to be seen as the architect of the recovery even though he will always be dubbed as the villain of the piece.  If that gambit works, he will forever be revered as a martyr in the Fianna Fail annals, even if he’s made a hostage to fortune.

    It would be churlish to say that these elections will be forgotten by the electorate. But you must remember that major crises like this – even a thousand cuts over a long period – don’t always guarantee political death. And though we are all saying sheep-like that ‘it looks really bad for the Government doesn’t it?’, that might not be the case in late 2011, if Cowen and his buddies have miraculously survived.

    Sure, we will need to see spectacular fireworks from the Government in the closing stages of this electoral cycle. But the net point I’m making is: just don’t write Cowen or his Government off just yet.

    The Greens, by contrast, are in a darker place.

    • John Smyth says:

      Interesting points, though I suspect that Fianna Fail will need to show a little humility first. The government line seems to be that the economic crisis was caused by external factors only, and had nothing to do with past FF policies [Frank Fahey on Newstalk last Sunday denying any FF culpability in the economic mess being the latest example]. The problem with this message is that no-one believes them, no matter how often they say it – in fact, I think it probably annoys people more. I reckon if Cowen and some of the other senior ministers were to say “hey, we messed up but we’ve learned our lesson”, it might be the first step to rehabilitation.
      As you say, it looks a lot less cheery for the Greens, who will pretty much have to accept anything that FF propose if they want to remain in govt. [which means they are doomed at the next election either way]

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      It is one of the cores of judo that knowing how to fall is one of the most important things you can learn.

      In 2002 FG fell worse than they needed to because they offered up too many hostages to fortune for no real electoral gain. The idea that small holders could carry over capital losses was turned into the idea of bailing out risk takers and the notion of compensation for taxi drivers (which was never party policy) has been used to beat the party ever since. So 2002 is a good example of what not to do.

      And while it is of course anathema to any political party there are times when it is probably better to bow out and take an early loss rather than hold out to the bitter end and be punished even more.

      FF target in the next election is essentially to stay within the size of Labour of an overall majority. FF getting 60 seats if Labour got 25 would be viewed by FF as a sign that even if they couldn’t do a deal next time that the time after could offer the chance to return to power. The goal for FG has to be to consign FF to 2 longish terms out of office, if the party is to realise its aim of replacing FF as the largest party in the state.

    • Peter B says:

      The Irish political landscape is rather depressing.

      In relation to Cowen I do not think he has any strategy and, if he has, then it’s truly obscure! I think Cowen is well able to communicate when he has something to say – he is not communicating because he has nothing to say! Let’s call a spade a spade – Cowen was the worst Minister for Finance I can recall and he is shaping up to be an equally bad Taoiseach. What has he ever achieved politically? This man has travelled a long way on propoganda and total nonsense and it is getting Ireland nowhere.

      As for FF, they will return to full strength, little doubt about that! As the saying goes, s**t always rises to the top!!

    • Rob Dowling says:

      The most important fact to consider about Ireland is the vast number of families who bought houses during the boom years, say 2000-2008. Every one of those investors and young families are watching their assets column of their balance sheet depreciate, while their liabilities (mortgage, car loan, credit card debt) remain high. Once liabilities exceed assets, they are insolvent. Most secured creditors won’t move against them unless they fail to meet their repayments when they fall due. As a result they are terrified of losing everything, so they will vote for whichever party they feel is a safe pair of hands.

      That means they vote for the managerial parties – Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. It means that only a minority will vote for ideological parties like the Greens or Labour. In other words, it means the status quo ante is sure to continue.

    • John Heavey says:

      Biffo was a disgrace in Health (or Angola as he termed it), anonymous in Foreign Affairs, worst finance minister in the history of the state, now worst taoiseach in the history of the state. But sure not to worry, he’s got a massive intellect.

    • sean fegan says:

      The comment is non ensical. A wind without sails doesn’t mean anything. Did the writer not mean sails with wind instead?. A burst balloon analogy is not much better. Why offer three analogies when one good one would have done?

    • Peter B says:

      Re Rob Dowling: your comments are interesting and unfortunately there is a large element of truth in what you say. In the last election this is exactly what people did – they voted for a political party whom they knew to have dubious standards of integrity (taoiseach in front of tribunals and the like). They also knew, unless they were comatose, that the economy was akin to a raging hot boiler on the verge of explosion, yet they thought the same political party whose policies created the raging heat could somehow cool it all down. It is time that the Irish electorate stopped focusing on their own balance sheets, as you put it, and started to consider the national balance sheet – and I’m not just referring to a financial balance sheet. It is time they realised that when the financial and social balance sheets are balanced, their own personal balance sheets are also likely to balance more easily. It is clear that the neo-liberal, right-wing agenda pursued over the past decade has not worked for Ireland, or indeed any other nation. The notion that within a society there can be extremes, where the fittest or most privileged few prosper, while the remainder exist between mediocrity and poverty, is a deeply-flawed one. We need a government who will put the good of our society before all else. To do this, we need a government and a leader who will create a vision, communicate it and take the necessary steps to bring it to fruition. I cannot think of a single politician, never mind a political party, within the current ‘politiscape’ who might be able to do this. Perhaps, as you say, Irish people prefer ‘managerial’ political parties and there is no room for such visionaries.

    • Peter B says:

      Sean, the one thing that both sails and balloons require is wind, if they’re to be of any use, that is! In the Dáil there is a lot of wind, much of it hot air, but if there are no sails to fill or balloons to inflate (metaphorically speaking) then is it not pointless and wasteful? The Greens are always going on about harnessing wind energy. Surely they should start in the Dáil!!!

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