Deckchairs on the Titanic


AS HE peers over the edge of the political abyss, Taoiseach Brian Cowen is attempting to rally supporters with the message “business as usual”. But there is nothing at all “usual” about this situation and the only “business” involves a desperate attempt to prevent the annihilation of Fianna Fáil. If opinion polls are a reliable guide – and they have been accurate in the past – something of a miracle will be required to avoid political disaster.

The tensions that brought an unsuccessful challenge to Mr Cowen’s leadership last Tuesday are still working their way through Government where the Green Party is trying to make its escape with dignity and a modicum of respect. Having lost confidence in Government two months ago because of the manner in which the European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout was handled (as did former minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin) the Green Party is still looking for an election date. But because Mr Cowen is the only one who can fix that date, John Gormley has been left hanging, expressing a personal conviction that the election should come now in March. The Taoiseach, however, remains uncommitted and has spoken of March/April.

Passage of the Finance Bill will bring the 30th Dáil to an end. That legislation is due to be introduced next week. While the Opposition parties have offered to facilitate its speedy passage, Mr Cowen is sticking with traditional timing, much as he did in rejecting EU pressure to introduce an early Budget. The upshot is likely to be a late February/early March completion date. In the meantime – and in spite of grumbles of “jobs for the boys” from the Green Party – the Taoiseach is likely to refresh his Cabinet by replacing Mr Martin, Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern and perhaps others who have announced their retirement. A substantial reshuffle will now follow which, despite what the Greens may think, is the Taoiseach’s sole prerogative. It may serve to refresh the face of Fianna Fáil. Certainly, it will have an impact on any post-election leadership contest.

The resignation of Mr Martin has lent him an aura of determination while Mr Lenihan damaged his relationship with some backbenchers by offering critical support to Mr Cowen. Mary Hanafin, who remains in Cabinet and insists she voted against Mr Cowen as party leader rather than as Taoiseach, says getting re-elected in her constituency is now her “only priority”. That seemed to be her sole consideration.

The prospect of defeat for Fianna Fáil candidates is gradually sinking in. The general election results of 1992, when Fine Gael lost 10 seats and 5 per cent of the popular vote, were regarded as cataclysmic. This time, Fianna Fáil’s losses could make that event look like a mild-mannered political tea party.

As Ministers concentrate on constituency affairs, the work of government is likely to be neglected. Pre-election skirmishing should not become a long, drawn-out business. Enough damage has been caused to the economy by prevarication, incompetence and poor judgment. An early election is now called for.