Thoughts of Taoiseach Cowen
Deaglán de Bréadún
‘I am the leader. I will be leading the party into the next general election’
Interview with Taoiseach Brian Cowen by Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times
TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has said it could take until the end of February for budgetary legislation to be passed by the Oireachtas, raising the prospect of a general election in late March.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Irish Times , Mr Cowen also said he had an open mind on the format of a leaders’ debate on television during the election and did not rule out a three-way or even five-way discussion.
He reiterated his intention of leading his party into the campaign. Asked if he would remain as leader in the event that Fianna Fáil went into opposition, he said this was a matter for the parliamentary party.
While expressing continued support for the Croke Park agreement he warned that the implementation process needed to be speeded up.
Asked when he expected the Finance Bill, implementing the terms of the Budget, to have passed all stages in the Dáil and the Seanad, the Taoiseach replied: “The new Dáil session will set out a programme for work, in the normal way. The Chief Whip will announce that in due course. The Bill will be published in the second half of January and will go through the various stages in the following weeks.”
Mr Cowen mentioned “the end of February” as a possible date for concluding this process.
Pressed on the issue, he would not confirm the date but pointed out that it normally took until the “end of March/early April” to enact the Finance Bill.
He stressed, however, that this only applied “in the normal run of things” and the circumstances were different on this occasion.
Under the relevant legislation, a general election must be held within 18 to 25 days, excluding Sundays and public holidays, after the moving of the writ by the clerk of Dáil Éireann.
In the event that the writ was moved on the last Thursday in February, for example, this would result in a general election taking place at some date between March 18th and 26th and probably closer to the latter than the former date, especially if the Taoiseach were making his annual visit to the White House for St Patrick’s Day.
In its initial declaration of intent to withdraw from Government, the Green Party urged the holding of the election in late January, but this position has shifted somewhat to take account of the processing of the Finance Bill.
This essential piece of legislation normally takes about six weeks to pass through the Houses of the Oireachtas and the process is usually completed towards the end of March. However, the Taoiseach declined to go into detail on these matters.
Asked if he would he leading the Fianna Fail party into the election, Mr Cowen said: “I am the leader, with the approval of party colleagues: I will be leading the party into the next election.”
In the past, Mr Cowen clearly enjoyed elections, but was he looking forward to this one? “The whole problem about the way politics is played by the Opposition is their incessant criticism of the position the country finds itself in. When it comes to an election, those parties in Opposition need to put forward their plans before polling day.
“Everyone knows what Fianna Fáil is going to be doing. At present, Fine Gael is appealing to its constituency and Labour is appealing to its. The Fine Gael leader said his party wouldn’t increase taxes. Labour said it wouldn’t cut welfare.
“Everyone knows there is no credible policy whereby that putative government wouldn’t increase taxes and cut welfare. People are entitled to know: what would they do in government?”
So was he calling on Fine Gael and Labour to agree a common programme ahead of the election? “Look, you know what I am going to do. What are they going to do? It’s a fair question.
“They are opposing everything the Government is doing, while agreeing to broad targets. Labour’s tax increases would be a jobs-killer and Fine Gael would have deeper cuts.
“You can’t be playing around. We need to see the real choices, not sound-bites for the optics. People are entitled to know what Fine Gael and Labour would do in government. There’s no immediate flick of the switch that can solve the problems.”
The television debates can have a critical influence on voters. Does the Taoiseach have a view on what the format should be this time? “We’ll have a look at what the format will be.”
Traditionally, there was a head-to-head between the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders, but would he be agreeable to a three-way or even five-way leaders’ debate on this occasion? “Whatever is fair and appropriate, we’ll do it.”
Would he be staying on as leader in the event that Fianna Fáil goes into opposition? “That is decided by the parliamentary party. I have noticed the media deciding the outcome of the election already. They also called the last one – wrongly.”
Turning to industrial matters – was he happy with the rate of progress on public sector reform under the Croke Park agreement?
“Our view is that the commitments we have made are predicated on the commitments given to us. Frontline services will be protected to the greatest extent possible.
“I am confident that it will be delivered on, because it has to be delivered on. It is important that the efficiencies are delivered. There is a deal there that needs to be implemented as quickly as possible: we need to see an acceleration [in that respect].
“The work done during the bad weather has been a great example of the best traditions of the public service, including the local authorities, the National Roads Authority, the transport companies, the Defence Forces, among others and not forgetting the voluntary organisations. That shows there is a great spirit.”
The Taoiseach said the public service had been seen at its best: “Making sure those who need help at this time are getting it. It is something that we should acknowledge and cherish because it makes this country what it is.”
Asked about his feelings at the end of a very difficult year in political terms, Mr Cowen said: “The greatest source of satisfaction is that the Budget came in as planned. The objective was to stabilise the economy.”
He added, “There has been an economic narrative suggesting all the gains of the past have been washed away. Similarly with the social gains: I still maintain we can retain up to 80 per cent of these and build on them in the future, if we stick with the plans that we have.”
© 2010 The Irish Times