Cowen defends Budget and plans to lead FF into election


Taoiseach Brian Cowen has unconditionally apologised for the economic crisis facing the country and has said he will lead Fianna Fáil into the general election.

In a spirited defence of his leadership, his Government’s Budget and handling of the economic crisis, Mr Cowen claimed that “in the main” he had the support of his party.

With the party at record lows in the polls a number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers are calling for a change of leader.

“We have a party that’s going to fight this election under my leadership,” Mr Cowen said, adding that Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan was not among those seeking a change in leadership.

The Taoiseach also said he did not consider calling an immediate election after the Green Party announced it was to pull out of Government, because it was "absolutely critical" that the four-year plan to be completed and the Budget passed. The Green Party has asked the Taoiseach to set a date for the election by the end of January.

Mr Cowen said the next government would have to take tough decisions to aid economic recovery. "Whoever governs this country over the next four years better be prepared to take the decisions and make sure we can sustain growth and have a future," he said.

Opposition parties, trade union leaders, anti-poverty groups, children’s rights organisations and others have denounced the €6 billion package which has seen a reduction of 10 per cent in the tax credits and bands, a new consolidated social charge of 7 per cent and the abolition of the PRSI ceiling.

The combination of measures will lead to significant tax increases for almost all workers, with more people paying at both the standard and the higher rate.

Mr Cowen said: “No one is more sorry about this situation than I am, nobody.”

"I have said it from day one that I am sorry we are in this situation, but it is my job, and it is the job of all of us, to move on and get this country moving back to where we have to get it," he added.

The Taoiseach claimed the Government had acted on the "best possible advice available to it" during the financial crisis. He also defended his actions as minister for finance, claiming he was the first minister to seek to calm the property sector by removing tax reliefs.

Mr Cowen said he believed many of the gains achieved during the boom years could be safeguarded.

"I'm proud of the fact that during the good times we were able to make many social gains as well as economic advances . . . and it does nothing for the confidence of this country to suggest that after the economic tsunami which hit us in 2008, everything has gone out with the sea," he said.

"I believe we can manage this to the extent where we can maintain many of those gains and in future regain some of those lost."

“Everyone in this country has to contribute something in the present crisis.” “We did come to a position where our standard of living was one of the highest in the world and our wealth didn’t justify it. We have to face up to that.”

Opening the Dáil debate on yesterday’s Budget, Mr Cowen rejected calls that he should be “ashamed”.

Mr Cowen told a half-filled Dáil he was “proud of all those progressive policies”. In an emphatic speech in which he highlighted the social benefits of earlier in the decade, Mr Cowen claimed up to 90 per cent of gains “can be maintained if we take the decisions now”.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the Budget lacked conviction, confidence and compassion.

“Yesterday your salary was 13 times that of a person on the minimum wage, today it is 14 times the level of a person of the minimum wage,” he told Mr Cowen.

Mr Kenny described Mr Cowen’s Budget contribution as a “speech of desperation”. He said anyone listening to the debate would think there was a balance of trade surplus and full employment.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore queried why a single cent had not been taken off tax exiles from a measure announced in last year’s budget, while carers, the blind, widows, and people who have lost their jobs will be cut for a second time in a year.

Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the Budget was still not a done deal and could be defeated.

The Budget passed its first test in the Dáil last night, with the Government having a comfortable majority of 82 votes to 77 on the first vote on the measure.