Top three's lack of experience a liability

Wed, Oct 29, 2008, 00:00

OPINION:NOT SINCE WT Cosgrave headed a government in 1922 (the job was known then as president of the Executive Council) has a politician come to the office of Taoiseach in more distressing circumstances than Brian Cowen, writes Vincent Browne

Not that Cowen and the rest of us perceived the circumstances as distressing back in those heady days last May, when the singing from the back of a lorry in Clara, the pints of stout and the delightful family exuberance enchanted us.

Yes, the property boom was coming to an end but it looked like the soft landing that had been promised. Perhaps a year or so of lesser economic growth but then a resumption of the relatively high growth rate Ireland had enjoyed for 15 years.

We all thought, including those of us who had decided to vote No, the Lisbon Treaty would be carried easily. With the departure of Bertie Ahern, Fianna Fáil's travails arising from the planning tribunal were over. Brian Cowen, the chosen one and clearly the most able, was to have an easy transition. But right from the off, he made things more difficult for himself by his ministerial appointments.

He did not have the run-in to becoming Taoiseach that Bertie Ahern did with two and a half years as leader of the Opposition. Those who previously became taoiseach without such an apprenticeship had struggled - Jack Lynch, Charlie Haughey and Albert Reynolds - and he should have appreciated that he, too, would struggle with the unexpected demands of office. Given that, he should have played safe with the senior ministerial appointments.

Yes, he had to cope with the "Dublin factor" following the departure of Bertie Ahern and he could have achieved that by retaining Brian Lenihan in Justice, where he was doing superbly, and making him Tánaiste. But to make Brian Lenihan Minister for Finance, propelling him into an arena where he had no prior experience was reckless at a time when he himself (Brian Cowen) would also be finding his feet. Noel Dempsey or Micheál Martin or Dermot Ahern could all have coped far better than Lenihan has been able to, simply because they each had far more Cabinet experience and some experience of economic ministries.

To have compounded that mistake by appointing Mary Coughlan Tánaiste was a blunder. The position of Tánaiste has now come to mean something because of the succession of coalition governments. Also because of the ordering of Dáil business which brings the Tánaiste centre stage at least once a week. Coughlan simply does not have the experience across several Government departments to get away with this.

Had she been alone among the new appointees it might not have mattered, but for all three at the top of the Government to be trying to find their feet at the same time put enormous pressure on all three.

Then there was the Lisbon Treaty debacle. The central problem was there was not a single trump argument to be made in favour of the treaty. The implied contention that this was necessitated to keep us in the EU was seen to be bogus. The efficiency and democracy arguments were seen to be thin, certainly not sufficient to counteract the perceived strength of the contention that our voice would be weakened crucially by losing out on a commissioner every five years. And there was the unintelligibility factor that the Government and other EU fans dismissed contemptuously.

Then the slow unravelling of the economy over the summer months, followed by the rapid and mesmerising unravelling in September into October. All of a sudden we were in a major economic crisis and all three at the top of Government were floundering. And, on top of that, the banking tsunami.

Nothing in the previous careers of Cowen, Lenihan and Coughlan prepared them to deal with anything like this. It must have been terrifying, not just for them but for the senior civil servants and Central Bank officials involved. But I suspect they made it worse for themselves by excluding from their inner circle those who had considerable experience, such as Noel Dempsey, Micheál Martin and Dermot Ahern. One of Cowen's liabilities is that, unlike Bertie Ahern, he has no Brian Cowen.

They antagonised the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party as well by foisting on them a budget which the TDs found impossible to defend and then backed off pitifully when the going got rough.

The problem now is that we remain in the middle of the most serious economic crisis the State has had to face in 84 years. If the banking deal and the massive fiscal deficit are mishandled the economy could be devastated for a decade or more and the reality is the country does not have confidence in those running the show as the Sunday Business Post poll showed on Sunday.

I suspect there is another problem: absence of coherent, thought-through political ideas and in the absence of those there are no guidelines on how to distribute the pain, what to prioritise, what to protect. Political ideas such as: first do justice, then do economics.