Cowen bristles at Gilmore jibe of 'economic treason'


Analysis:Testy Dáil exchanges indicate Taoiseach does not like being held accountable for the mess

THERE WAS a rawness about the exchanges in the Dáil between the main party leaders yesterday that took political debate to a new level of intensity. The bitterness arose from the devastating consequences of the Anglo Irish Bank bailout for this and future generations and the Opposition’s attempt to hold Fianna Fáil and its leader accountable for what has happened.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny set the tone at the start of the day. Holding Brian Cowen responsible for his stewardship since 2004, he referred to a private dinner the then minister for finance attended, just a month before he became taoiseach, along with Seán FitzPatrick and the board of Anglo Irish Bank at a restaurant in Dublin.

Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore went a step further and suggested that the bank guarantee scheme in September of 2008 was designed to save the skins of a number of individuals connected to Fianna Fáil and Anglo Irish Bank. “That decision was an act of economic treason for which this country is now paying very dearly,” said Gilmore.

Cowen responded to Kenny by accusing him of an attempted smear. “I do not accept the contentions made by Deputy Kenny and I treat them with contempt,” he said.

The Taoiseach was even more indignant and emotional in his response to the Labour leader’s charge. “I consider that to be beyond the Pale,” he said, insisting that nobody should doubt the motivation behind his actions. “They were the very same, laudable motivations that would have moved him [Gilmore] had he been in my position. I would never come into this House to accuse another Irishman of what he accused me.”

Cowen was clearly cut to the core of his Fianna Fáil heart by Gilmore’s use of the word “treason”, even if it was prefaced by the word “economic”. Only time will tell whether it will go into the annals of politics like Paddy Donegan’s description of Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh as a “thundering disgrace”, or Garret FitzGerald’s use of “flawed pedigree” to describe Charles Haughey’s political background.

The problem for the Taoiseach is that somebody has to be held politically accountable for the calamitous state of the Irish banking system that has brought the country to its knees. As the minister for finance between 2004 and 2008, when the banking/property developer axis was allowed to run out of control and as Taoiseach when the bank guarantee scheme was introduced, political responsibility falls squarely on Cowen’s shoulders. To make matters worse, the scale of the banking problem and the drain it is imposing on the resources of the State gets bigger at every stage. The words of reassurance uttered by Cowen and Brian Lenihan when the guarantee was introduced look hollow now, as do the assurances made when Nama was established – it was suggested then that the agency might even show a profit.

The truly rotten apple in the barrel was Anglo Irish Bank and many people find it very hard to understand why saving it was an overriding imperative. Unfortunately we will never know for sure whether the entire banking system would have collapsed if the guarantee was not applied to Anglo or whether it could have been cut off like a gangrenous limb before it infected the national finances so badly.

In the Dáil debate on Tuesday night Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan pointed out that his party had supported the guarantee in the first instance but he said that he had lost faith in the Government’s ability to provide people with the facts. He also asked who the key bankers were who provided advice on the night of the guarantee. “Seán FitzPatrick, and the then chief executive and chairman of Allied Irish Banks and Bank of Ireland and Mr Fingleton was on the telephone. Their advice was to give the banks a guarantee to rescue them and they said that everything was fine.”

Noonan added that the Minister for Finance was caught in a situation in which everyone advising him had a vested interest. “If lying was an Olympic sport we would win gold every year if we togged out four bankers. There would be no problem in that regard. On that night the truth was not being told in Merrion Street by the senior bankers.”

Just as people such as Noonan who supported the Government’s decision to introduce the guarantee are now beginning to doubt if it was the right thing to do, many are no longer prepared to believe the Government’s assertions that closing Anglo would cost more than saving it. It may very well be the least worst option, as Lenihan says, but people have no way of knowing.

Gilmore was within his rights to ask the Taoiseach to provide whatever documentary evidence he can assemble from the night of September 29th/30th, 2008, to show what kind of advice the Government was getting and from whom. If that advice can be produced, it might help persuade people that pumping money into Anglo is the only option.

Labour was the only party to oppose the introduction of the bank guarantee scheme and subsequent events have justified that stance. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting at which Cowen’s leadership was debated yesterday afternoon was, on the face of it, a relief from all the hostility in the Dáil chamber. John McGuinness was the only TD to speak out openly against the leader and tell him it was time to go. Some others were critical of his communication skills but the overall tone was strongly supportive.

Cowen would do well to take the sincerity of some of the support he got at the meeting with a grain of salt but it certainly seems that there will be no serious attempt to remove him as party leader before the next election.

It helped Cowen that the Government’s Dáil majority has become more secure this week, despite its problems. A striking feature of the Dáil vote on Nama on Tuesday night was the fact that it had such a comfortable majority of 83 votes to 69. Fianna Fáil achieved its rock solid Dáil victory by bringing two old friends back into the fold to join the Greens, the two ex-PDs and its two consistent Independent backers, Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae. To them it added the Independent Finian McGrath, who withdrew his backing for the Government back in 2008, and Joe Behan, who left the Fianna Fáil party over the budget of that year. It appears that Fianna Fáil has been working behind the scenes to maintain its majority, just in case the Greens decide to exit the Coalition at some stage.

Stephen Collins is Political Editor

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