Brian Cowen's poor rating in French survey; Paddy Power says strong backing for Yes vote; Dáil babes get together; Michael Ring's Christmas card

ONCE UPON a time we thought we were the bee's knees of Europe, with our Celtic Tiger and big cars and unhealthy obsession with designer handbags.

But things are on the slide now. They don't even like our politicians any more. Recently, Brian Lenihan was rated by the Financial Times as the second worst finance minister in Europe.

Now, not to be outdone, Brian Cowen has also surged all the way to second last in a list of the best leaders in Europe in 2008.

French business newspaper, La Tribune, asked 12 senior European correspondents from nine countries to rate the 27 heads of government in the EU. The result of their poll was published this week. Not surprisingly, French president Nicolas Sarkozy snaffles first place.

"Sarkozy has given proof of a new style of presidency of the Union, which, while not always perfect, is nevertheless of exceptional quality," is La Tribune's verdict.

Respondents commented on his leadership qualities and "the energy with which he has tackled difficult problems like the Georgian crisis and the financial crisis." In second place is Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, followed by Gordon Brown of Britain and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The jury was asked to take into account leadership skills, team spirit, commitment to Europe and responses to this year's political challenges.

Now to the failures. The last three holding up the list are Czech premier Mirek Topolanek, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and, in last place, the Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.

The jury dubbed him "an unpredictable and egotistical populist".

As for the Taoiseach, one jury member called him "the Chirac of 2008", another said he was "playing a waiting game which borders on cowardice" and another commented he is "the opposite of a good political leader."

Playing hard ball

The tough hurling approach to negotiating is not appreciated in Europe, as Brian Cowen discovered this week at the EU Summit.

As the Taoiseach went into a conference room with Nicolas Sarkozy to continue talks on securing legal guarantees for Ireland on aspects of the Lisbon Treaty, he was overheard to say "this is non-negotiable."

Mr Sarkozy swiftly replied that things are done differently in Europe, where "nothing is non-negotiable". If the Taoiseach didn't like this, he could leave the room.

Brian's attempt to play hard ball with the French president was quickly slapped down.

But one should never underestimate a Clara man, and the Taoiseach duly delivered those vital guarantees yesterday.

Betting on a Yes

As soon as Brian Cowen announced he would be holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, bookmaker Paddy Power reported significant support coming in for a Yes vote. The company had been offering odds of 5-6 on both outcomes, but was forced to slash the price on a successful Yes vote from 5-6 to 4-6 after a surge of bets were placed, including several wagers of €5,000.

"I reckon we'll take in around €100,000 on a Yes vote by the end of the day, as opposed to around €16,000 on a No result," spokesman Ken Robertson told us yesterday.

The Lisbon referendum will resurrect painful memories for Paddy Power - the chain paid out over €80,000 to punters who backed the wrong horse on polling day earlier this year.

"We were so sure that the pro-agreement campaign was going to succeed we paid out the day before the result. We called it wrong and it cost us, although in fairness, we've paid out before polling day on the last six elections and got all of them right.

"The genius in here who called the Yes vote in June is still locked in the dungeon. Obviously we'll be a lot more careful with the result this time and will try our best to avoid getting egg all over our face again." The current odds are 4-6 Yes and 11-10 No.

Costly junkets

An article in BusinessWeek magazine catches the eye. It shows that officials from Irish State agencies are not the only people with a fondness for expensive trips to nice places abroad.

But even our home-grown Space Cadets from Fás would be hard pressed to keep up with the hectic schedule of junkets by bureaucrats from China, where government trips "arranged around loosely defined training goals" are a favourite perk.

A recent fact-finding mission to America ended in humiliation back home for one group when details of their exploits in Las Vegas, Hawaii and San Francisco ended up on the internet. Their travel agent left a bag behind on the Shanghai underground containing dozens of documents and receipts relating to the trip, and enthusiastic comments from the happy tourists. The documents chronicled the adventures of 23 officials from the eastern city of Wenzhou during five days of a three-week trip.

Their Communist Party committee has demanded repayment of all unapproved expenses.

The group visited nearly a dozen cities, many more than authorised, and spent just five days on official business. The reasons for the trip? Everything from "An Overview of American History" to "Honest and Clean Government Management." The officials enjoyed their travels. "The guide did a great job . . . including the homosexual show," wrote one of a stop in San Francisco.

Four Wenzhou officials have been given warnings over the trip. The officials may have gotten off lightly because they denied gambling - an illegal act in China - during a two-night stay at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

"It was a first overseas trip for most of them and they were very discreet," Tao Shimei, the director of the disciplinary department for Wenzhou's Communist Party committee, told the China Daily newspaper.

Dáil babies

More personal announcements and more Dáil babies for the boys in Leinster House.

This time, it is congratulations to Fine Gael TD for Kerry South, Tom Sheahan, who became a father for the fourth time two weeks ago when his wife Mary gave birth to their third daughter.

Sarah weighed in at 7lb 10oz in Tralee General Hospital, to the delight of sisters Kate (13) and Laura (8) and brother Tom (11).

"Everything went well — we like to do things by the book here in Rathmore," said Tom.

"But is there any chance people mightn't ring me this Sunday afternoon.

"The christening is on."

Rashers return

Joy was unconfined in Leinster House on Thursday when news came through that the rasher and sausage would soon be returning to the Dáil restaurant.

Such was the delight of Fianna Fáil Senator Terry Leyden, he put plans in place for a special breakfast to celebrate the wonderful news.

Invitations had been dispatched.

"Please feel free to join me and members of the Cabinet and Dáil and Seanad Éireann on Tuesday morning for a hearty Irish breakfast in Leinster House featuring quality Irish pork and bacon produce!

"We can all contribute to the revival of the Irish pork and bacon industry."

Terry has Bord Bia supplying the nosh and expects a good turnout for this cross-party event.

Perhaps Oireachtas restaurants manager Don Rice might consider renaming the Members Dining Room for the morning. Might we suggest "The Rasher's Return." However, all this eating is not without consequences, as Senator Cecelia Keaveney pointed out in the Seanad.

"If we all eat a big breakfast, as Senator Leyden wants us to, will the leader look at one or two options: The Oireachtas gym is open from 1pm until 3pm. If, like yesterday, our sos [break] is from 2.30pm until 3.30pm, we will miss the opportunity to run off our big breakfasts. Will the Leader ensure that the sos coincides with the gym's opening hours or that those hours are extended?

"In that way we could have the benefit of the big breakfast with pork products while retaining the option of running it off afterwards."

Indeed, matters of state weigh heavy in the Seanad.

Job fears

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin met his Georgian counterpart, Eka Tkeshelashvili, two weeks ago in Tbilisi. A couple of days later, she was sacked by the prime minister in a government reshuffle.

Funnily enough, Martin's predecessor at foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, also met Georgia's minister for foreign affairs when he was at the helm in Iveagh House.

Salome Zourabishvili met him during an official visit to Dublin. And two days later Zourabishvili lost her job.

Imagine the panic in Tbilisi the next time word comes through that an Irish Minister wants to pay a call.

Santa Cowen

Michael Ring, the Mouth of Mayo, prides himself on his Christmas cards.

This year's batch was posted out this weekend.

It features a cartoon Santa looking into his sack. A speech bubble reads: "Merry Christmas. Ho, Ho, Ho . . . No!" Inside, a disgruntled Santa, who looks very like Brian Cowen, stands beside his empty sack as he thinks: "I must have squandered the lot."

Deputy Ring commissioned Newport-based artist Pat Tracey to draw the cartoons. "But the idea was all my own."

Battleship Bertie

Still in Mayo, and Michael's party leader and constituency colleague Enda Kenny at McLaughlin's bookshop in Castlebar for the launch of journalist John

Cooney's compilation of columns from the Western People, called Battleship Bertie - Politics in Ahern's Ireland. The book is dedicated to the late John Healy, who formerly occupied the column before he moved on to the The Irish Times.

And while we don't wish to spoil any surprises, Enda forked out for 20 copies of the book. Labour's Joan Burton also bought in bulk, showing that Bertie is box office where his political opponents are concerned.

Speaking of Bertie, he was in Leinster House on Thursday for a vote. The former taoiseach is still in a wheelchair after breaking his foot, but he looks terrific.

Despite being unable to exercise, Bertie has been watching his weight. He's lost nearly a stone and a half in the last couple of months.

Maybe giving up the Bass in November had something to do with it. Also, given that his career as a guest speaker at corporate events has taken off, he has to look good for the paying public.

Petticoat power

The issue of women participating in national politics came to the fore following Tuesday's gathering in the Dáil chamber of female Oireachtas members past and present. The event marked the 90th anniversary of women getting the vote.

On Thursday, in St Stephen's Green, Dublin's Lord Mayor Eibhlin Byrne, along with Senator Cecilia Keaveney and Senator Ivana Bacik, performed the unveiling of the rededicated bench in memory of Anna and Thomas Haslam, who were in the vanguard of the struggle for suffrage for women in Ireland. The limestone bench was first put in place in 1925.

This ceremony also marked the 1918 election, when women voted in Ireland for the first time.

Anna Haslam cast her vote on December 14th, 1918, at the age of 89, achieving her lifetime ambition.

She died in 1922. Her husband Thomas never lived to see her vote as he died in 1917.

After the unveiling, the women gathered up their petticoats and walked to the nearby bust of Countess Markievicz, the first woman to take a seat at the House of Commons. Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern was due to deliver a speech but, ironically, he was obtained because he had to vote . . . in the Dáil.