We are stuck with inept trio and a dismal alternative

Wed, Dec 31, 2008, 00:00

As we stumble towards catastrophe there is a largely unspoken lacuna of political leadership on all sides, writes Vincent Browne

THERE IS a looming political crisis which dominates much of private conversation but hardly ever surfaces in public debate. It is the collapse of confidence in the trio that are seen to be running our affairs: Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan and Brian Lenihan, and the dismay at the prospect of an alternative government led by Enda Kenny.

The collapse of confidence coincides with another crisis, the most serious economic downturn Ireland has experienced in 87 years, a negative growth rate of 4 per cent in 2009 with maybe worse to come in 2010. The social impact of this economic jolt will be devastating for well over a million of our citizens, probably over a million and a half. Thousands of businesses will go to the wall, including some media enterprises. The pensions of hundreds of thousands of elderly people have been or will be wiped out. Poverty will afflict over a million citizens. Maybe over 7,000 will die prematurely each year because of that poverty.

The collapse of confidence in the top ministerial trio is universal, in my experience. Nobody I have spoken to in the last month, not even Fianna Fáil TDs, have expressed any confidence that the trio leading the country have the capacity, the experience and the expertise to get us out of the mess. There is alarm that the handling of the banking crisis may prejudice the prospects of the country for a generation. And there is little reason for optimism they will be able to cope with the looming gaping hole in the Government's finances in 2009.

Cowen is unfortunate to come to the office of Taoiseach at a time of unfolding economic and financial calamity, a calamity for which nothing in his background, expertise or experience prepared him - aside from his unchallenging period as minister for finance. He made mistakes in his ministerial appointments, which many of his predecessors did also but with less consequence. Lenihan is clever and decent but he came to the office of Minister for Finance with no qualifications for the position whatsoever and having been a Cabinet minister for less than a year. Coughlan is unfortunate that the position of Tánaiste is not quite as inconsequential as it once was, in part because the Tánaiste has to take leaders' questions in the Dáil on Thursdays. She has not been able to handle that role with confidence.

Cowen's instinct to seek a way out of the dilemma through consultation with the social partners is correct but not enough. The public must be engaged to win approval for the rough decisions that have to be taken and the trio have seemed unable to mobilise any public support for what needs to be done.

While there is widespread dismay within Fianna Fáil over the performance of the trio, there is no impetus to do anything about it. Maybe after the European and local elections in June if Fianna Fáil does badly - and the likelihood is that Fianna Fáil will be perceived not to have done so badly because they are coming from a low base off the 2003 European and local elections performance, when it lost seats all over the place.

The next hurdle will be the Lisbon Treaty referendum in October which, at this stage, seems likely to become a referendum on Cowen, since a defeat then would surely precipitate his resignation as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil. But by then where will we be and would any alternative leader of Fianna Fáil be any better?

Fine Gael remains in denial about its leadership problem. They refuse to acknowledge what is evident to everyone else in the country, it seems, that Kenny as a prospective taoiseach has no credibility. But Kenny, in spite of this and his likeability, just is not credible as alternative taoiseach.

He does not have a grasp of the issues, notably of economic issues on which he is way out of his depth. There is an obvious alternative leader of Fine Gael, Richard Bruton, but nobody in Fine Gael, including Bruton, seems motivated to do anything about it.

Meanwhile we stumble towards the coming catastrophe, a catastrophe that is avoidable even now. We remain a hugely rich country. As a society we can easily withstand a negative growth rate of 4 per cent even if followed by another year of 4 per cent negative growth and even a third year of that. If we didn't buy any new cars, for instance, in 2009 and 2010 we could pay for most of the crisis through the savings. That is as a society.

But for all the rhetorical guff about society and being in this together, we are not a society and we are not in this together. If we were a society and if we were in this all together, the rich would pay for the crisis, all of it (and by rich I include most of us readers of The Irish Times, including myself). And, at the same time, ensure that the quarter to a third of the population that will be most affected by the crisis will be protected through welfare, better health and improved education.

But that would be economic suicide, we are told. How comforting.