Early election needed to draw line under ignominy


ANALYSIS: The handling of events over the past 10 days destroyed whatever remaining credibility the Government had left – its time is up

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to request a financial aid package from the emergency fund established by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) yesterday brought one of the most dramatic and traumatic weeks in Irish political history to its inevitable conclusion.

For all the ignominy the move represented, it has given a confused and fearful electorate a measure of certainty. The publication of the four-year fiscal plan tomorrow and the budget on December 7th will bring further clarity to the position the country now finds itself in.

Of course a lot of people will not like the things they find in the plan and the budget, but those measures will, hopefully, bring a sense of realism in public debate about how we get out of our grave difficulties.

After more than two years of talking about drastic measures, it seems that decisive action is finally about to take place. The real danger is not that the Government will act too harshly but that the axe will fall in the wrong place.

Why, for instance, is the Croke Park agreement sacrosanct when welfare payments are about to be cut?

Why are pensions untouchable but the minimum wage can be slashed?

As Brian Lenihan sought the approval of his Cabinet colleagues to apply for the fund yesterday, it was clear the immediate priority is to ensure that the banks don’t collapse.

The threat that such a disaster might happen and threaten the survival of the euro was the catalyst for the EU/IMF intervention, but patience with the Government’s ability to handle the economy was already beginning to wear thin among our EU partners.

Whether an alternative banking policy at the beginning would have averted the disaster we will never know, but the policy that was adopted has simply not worked.

On the public finances, the Government’s main failing is that it has acted so erratically since the storm broke in the autumn of 2008, making some courageous decisions like cutting public service pay, but shirking the recommendations of the McCarthy report and the need for a property tax. The failure to do all that was needed to get the public finances properly back on track quickly fed into a lack of confidence in the banks and the two combined simply overwhelmed the Coalition.

The handling of events over the past 10 days destroyed whatever remaining credibility the Government had left. The failure of the Taoiseach and his Ministers to tell the public what was happening did not arise from any deliberate attempt to mislead; it was that they just didn’t seem to appreciate what was happening around them.

When it finally dawned on them, they engaged in nitpicking distinctions between talks involving officials and those involving political contact.

In the bubble world in which Ministers and senior civil servants operate, this may even have made sense but the Government ended up looking foolish and incompetent in front of the world. That is something from which it will never recover.

One way or another, the Coalition’s days are numbered. It simply cannot continue to govern much longer, having lost every last vestige of authority and the sooner it is taken out of its agony, the better for everybody.

Precisely how an election will happen is not at all clear but it has to take place as early as practicable in the new year.

It is now taken as a given in the political world that the four-year plan and the budget will have to be ratified by the Dáil. After what now looks like the inevitable victory of Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin in the Donegal South West byelection, the Government’s majority will shrink to three. That will leave the fate of the budget in the hands of Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae but they are likely to vote for it, as not to do so would plunge the country into fresh turmoil.

Even if the two Independents decided to try and block the budget, it is likely that Fine Gael would find a way of letting it pass, although only on the condition that an election is held in January or February.

Given the way he has acted up to now, Brian Cowen may well try and continue on until he simply runs out of support in the Dáil. That will inevitably happen next spring when the three outstanding byelections in Dublin South, Waterford and Donegal North East take place and the Government’s majority of three is wiped out.

However, the Coalition is unlikely to last until then. If the two Independents do back the budget, they may not be in the mood to flout popular opinion for much longer. Lowry and Healy Rae may decide that the best option is to vote against the Government on the Finance Bill when the Dáil comes back at the end of January.

The Greens will also have to make a decision on whether they want to continue in office any longer. While they will face a huge challenge to retain any seats in the Dáil, they will have one last chance to point up their separate identity as a party by precipitating the election as soon as possible.

Whether Brian Cowen will lead Fianna Fáil into that election – or whether he even wants to, as he insisted he does last night – is a moot question. At this stage it is doubtful if a new leader would do any better, but that is something Fianna Fáil TDs will have to ponder in the coming days.

Whatever way it comes about, an early election is required to mark an end to a dreadful phase in Irish political and economic affairs. Hopefully it may also mark the first step on the road to recovery of national well being and self-esteem.

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