Cowen will remain as Taoiseach…
… because all his rivals know they will meet a similar fate if they take over.
Unless Fianna Fail can do something similar in the next 12 months with the loaf of stale bread and the five rotting fishes that a fellow did 2,000 years ago, they are goners.
Damage limitation is the name of the game. Three terms for FF was one term too many. By rights, the scandal over Bertie Ahern’s finances should have brought the Government down in 2007. But Fine Gael (and Enda Kenny) were too weak then to gain people’s trust that the party could be trusted with the economy.
There’s no percentage in it for Mícheál Martin or Dermot Ahern or Mary Hanafin. They take over Fianna Fail and lead the party to an inevitable defeat in the next election. One that will make Fine Gael’s performance in 2002 look, to use Tiger Woods’s favourite adjective, HUGE.
The only member of the Cabinet who is really untainted is Brian Lenihan who only became a full Minister in 2007 after being ignored by Ahern for years. However, his battle with illness make a leadership run unrealistic at this moment in time.
Cowen is a bit of an enigma. His public image and his communications skills are terrible (so much for the star debater). There is a game called BS Bingo that tracks the use of moronic business jargon in speeches. Cowen gets a full house everytime. Those who work closely with him say that he’s hands on; that he’s fully engaged with all issues, and is across every brief.
For all we know he could be performing miracles in the background as his aides claime. But nothing of that comes across, except for the once-a-year rousing speech to a chamber of commerce somewhere.
What comes across is caution, conservatism, indecisiveness, and wavering. His reshuffle last week was proof postive of that. But at the same time, if you were cynical about it, with everybody he might have dropped, he would have created a new enemy. His most bitter rivals now within his parliamentary party are junior ministers who were dropped.
Still, the larger criticism remains.
We’ve had three reports now on the Smart Economy, all of which have been launched with much fanfare. So where’s the job strategy moving from here? You can’t get it just from renaming bits of departments into ‘innovation’ and ‘skills’. We need a coherent, spelled out, this-is-how-we-are-going-to-do-it jobs plans. And he needs to show that he is moving and shifting on it. NOW.
Everything Fianna Fail and the PDs stood for during the boom years has been discredited. It might have been a tiger economy for a couple of years, when exports were high. But for a decade it was a bubble economy, with cheap money, and cheap credit, and ‘light touch’ regulation fanning the flames.
We saw the same two traits and failures take hold among bankers that felled the Wall Street banks: irrational exeuberance and moral hazard, where the bigger your loan book, the bigger you bonus was.
That irrational exuberance gripped us all. We all became junkies. The Government and the banks were the dope peddlers. The big developers parading around in their private jets with the vulgar lifestyle provided the role models. And yes, the media bought it into it too – big time. Though we didn’t describe it as greed gone to lunatic levels. We had a a more polite term for it… aspirational.
The strange thing is. The fiscal solution so far has been the best of a bad lot. It’s the right solution. But you can’t ignore the paradox that the surgeon that is carrying out the necessary and painful surgery looks exactly like the guy who inflicted the injury on you that necessitated the operation.
Or as Justin McCarthy, the political editor of Today FM, nicely put it several months ago. It’s like returning home to fine your TV robbed. A couple of minutes later there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy selling you a TV that looks suspiciously like the one that’s been nicked. You stump up the money. Even though you don’t like it, you don’t have a choice. You need a TV.
It’s caused a huge amount of anger among public sector employees. Their argument is that they didn’t cause the crisis. That is true. Another argument is that there is a fair proportion of workers in the private sector who didn’t have to take pay cuts. That is also true. And their sense of grievance is heightened by the fact that a small elite group at the top had their cuts reversed because a ‘bonus’ they got every year was a reward for showing up to work each day.
The cutbacks, through pension contributons and pay, have caused pain. I believe it was necessary. It would be impossible to target those who hadn’t received cuts in the private sector without subjecting those who received cuts to greater pain. Besides, benchmarking had been very good to public servants over the past decade. People have quibbled with the ESRI reports but there is a preponderance of opinion that believes that public sector workers did have a premium.
Bertie Ahern and his Governments bought their way out of problems during the good times. When you begin to look at the kind of working arrangements that some sectors had, there were a lot of extras and little bonuses built in that made them look, well, a bit dodgy. The long list of bonuses (some of them completely unjustifiable) for the gardai was the most egregious. But when you have systemic unfairness coupled with ineffeciency in some cases (though not all) something has to give.
Sure, the pay increases hardly kept up with a burgeoning increase in the cost of living (especially on property, which went nuts). But once the bubble burst, the correction was always going to be painful. On balance, given the nightmare it was faced with, the Government hadn’t a lot of wiggle room and made the argument (fiercely contested) that some of those who had done well out of the State over the ten years of the bubble should give a little back.
Of course, it was the developers and bankers who caused all of the problems. They are falling like skittles now.
Already there have been a couple of perp walks from bankers. Expect all the developers who featured in the social and business pages as the brains behind the Celtic Tiger, to feature in the NAMA write-down this week. This time though they should be mocked as the harmful dunces who brought us all to our knees.
And as for the politicians, I suspect that the public will see the next General Election as payback time. I think what will surprise people the most is the number of senior ministers who will lose their seats. My own guess is that over half the Cabinet won’t survive.