Cowen has one last chance to redeem himself

Thu, Nov 25, 2010, 00:00

The honourable thing for Fianna Fáil to do is put through the right budget – the one no one would vote for

ON THE economics, I agree with the lads: default on the bank debt. The politics is more complicated. My father grimly proclaimed once that “the Greens are the most dangerous development in Irish politics since De Valera”. I thought it was a hilarious overstatement. It didn’t seem quite so funny when they put Fianna Fáil back in power and it’s certainly no laughing matter now.

Their announcement on Monday plunged depths I hadn’t thought possible. Too chicken to pull out now. Too chicken to support the Cabinet. So we get the worst of all worlds from a bunch of free-range chickens. They want to appear to do the right thing by supporting the budget but pull off a cute political trick dressed up in some bogus morality by simultaneously calling for an election. Bread. Butter. Both sides. What a disaster.

All it means is that the Government has been fatally undermined, but left in power, at the worst possible moment. The bizarre strategy incentivises Independents and what Pat Rabbitte calls “freelance Fianna Fáil backbenchers” to run for the hills. It immediately created a global expectation that the Government would fall the same day. Therefore it achieved the exact opposite of what John Gormley claims he wants. How could he not see that?

The supposed strategy also undermined the efforts of the European Union to deal with contagion.

By allowing the banking disaster to materialise in the first place and then attempting to cure it with the guarantee, Ireland has brought nothing but trouble to member states. With this move, the Greens have wrecked the prospect of stability, for the country and the euro itself.

The Government has been arguing for two years that an election would be too destabilising. That was a ploy to keep them in power, hoping the worst might have passed by the time polling day came. They were wrong to stall. Wrong for them because the gamble failed; things got worse not better. Wrong for us because a new government was the only way we could reverse some of the insane banking policies. But like the boy who cried wolf, this time I think they are right.

I think budget first; election second is important for three reasons.

First: speed is critical for the domestic economy and the stability of the euro. Right now no one is spending a cent, because we’ve no idea what’s coming. In the vacuum, a bank run is more likely.

The uncertainty created by postponing a budget until after an election would be unbearable. On the budget itself, there are major differences between Fine Gael and Labour. Labour wants €4.5 billion in cuts and Fine Gael wants €6 billion. That means tortuous coalition negotiations. How long would it all take? Eight weeks? Do you really want another two months like the past week? The country paralysed? The EU paralysed? Is it just enough time for the euro to collapse?

Second: without a budget behind us, what exactly would people vote for? Will public servants vote to tear up the Croke Park agreement? Pensioners for cutting pensions? The unemployed to cut social welfare? The workers for increasing taxes? Have Irish voters yet learned to sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of the country? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Labour will oppose everything and propose nothing. Fine Gael will torture themselves as usual – knowing what the right thing is but terrified to say it because they still don’t trust the electorate to reward truth.

We’re in a terrible mess and I really hope a new government will make fundamental constitutional changes to a political system that has failed us. So I want to have a campaign based on electoral and legislative reform that will bring real change. That won’t happen if you have an election on the budget. You know what will happen. It’ll just be the usual clamouring for exceptionalism. Enda Kenny understands that quite well which is why he called for the budget to be brought forward.

Third: I think Fianna Fáil should bring in the budget. This is their mess. There is no avoiding cutting everything from top to bottom, so they should be the ones to do it. Since their political capital is spent anyway, the honourable thing to do is put through the right budget – the one no one would vote for. That would give the Opposition a clean slate to fight new battles – with the holders of bank debt – not with every interest group claiming to be the most vulnerable. They could hand over power then with the worst done. Think W T Cosgrave and 1932.

I know many people have criticised Brian Cowen for not resigning on Monday but I think he did the right thing. His Cabinet may never recover from the past two years but they have one last chance to redeem themselves.

There’s one more thing he should do: take up Kenny’s suggestion to accelerate the process. There are no excuses. If he doesn’t – the charge that he’s simply clinging to power sticks.

As battered as the Cabinet must feel this week, they should use whatever personal strength they have left to get the budget through – and fast.

Get it passed before Christmas and then go to the country.

They’ve made terrible mistakes, but it’s never too late to do the right thing.