The Week That Changed Everything

Brian Cowen and his wife Mary pose for photographs in Government Buildings after he won a confidence vote last Tuesday, but their joy was short lived.

A week is a long time in politics, as Tip O'Neill once said.  I wonder what that wise old head would have thought of the shenanigans in Irish politics over the past week. 

More than likely he would have been appalled and saddened in equal measure, which is how all of us here have felt. 

If nothing else, the last week has proved just how accurate O'Neill's observation was.  A week is indeed a long time in politics. 

For Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, the last week must have seemed like an eternity. 

It started with a revolt in Fianna Fail, with the Foreign Minister Micheal Martin challenging Cowen for the leadership of the party after it slid to a catastrophic 14% in the opinion polls.  Cowen won the vote at the subsequent party meeting. 

Buoyed by his victory, he then got several ministers who did not want to run again in the imminent election to resign in what was clearly a choreographed move; this allowed him to do a reshuffle so that the party could present a fresher face to the voters.    

But the Green Party, Fianna Fail's coalition partners in government, were not having this. It was a cynical stroke that would outrage people, they said.

By the end of the week the Greens had left the government and Cowen had resigned the leadership of Fianna Fail, the position he had retained just a couple of days before.  He said he was staying on as taoiseach for the next few weeks, amid general agreement that the Finance Bill which gives legal effect to the budget had to be passed before the election is held.

It was a shambles.  From one day to the next last week -- sometimes from hour to hour -- it was hard to know who was in charge or what was going to happen next. 

Uncertainty swept the country as the media battled to keep up with the unfolding political drama.  And all this was being watched nervously from the outside by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU, aware that the budget contained the first steps in the four-year program that had been agreed when they gave Ireland the ***85 billion bailout.

By the end of last week, Fianna Fail were a minority government and there was some doubt about whether the budget could get through. 

Over the weekend, an agreement was reached between the parties to get the Finance Bill through the Dail (Parliament) this week, after which an election will be called.  But with the vote hanging on whether the Greens and some independents vote with the government, nothing is certain.

Fine Gael and Labor are playing a hypocritical game, on the one hand saying they will facilitate the passage of the bill and on the other reserving their right to vote against parts of it. 

The truth is, of course, that they want it passed before the election so that when they get into government they can't be blamed for the cutbacks and tax hikes it contains.  And in the meantime they are trying to give the impression that they oppose it.

Add in a few loopy independents who hold critical votes in the Dail, and the situation is that the whole house of cards could collapse at any moment.  And if that happens before the Finance Bill is passed, no one knows what will happen. It's even possible that the IMF/EU could turn off the flow of funds and leave us swinging. 
As I said, it's an absolute shambles.  The rest of Europe, and even the rest of the world, has been looking on in disbelief.  It surpasses the worst Oirish joke ever told about us.

Not surprisingly, the international media coverage of our political crisis over the past week has been scathing.  I see that the three top American papers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have all used the same description -- "a circus" -- to put into words what has been going on here. 
Other words common to the coverage in top newspapers in the U.K. and U.S. were  "implosion" and "meltdown" -- not the kind of language you want to read about Ireland, its political system and economy. 
In Britain, The Financial Times described the sudden collapse of Fianna Fail as "extraordinary," and said that their likely "annihilation" in the election would be richly deserved.

"This is, after all, the party that through its cronyism and incompetence, artificially prolonged the boom of the 1990s into the credit and property bubble of the past decade, and then gave a blanket guarantee to its banker friends that has ended in the humiliation of Ireland becoming a ward of the European Central Bank and the IMF," the paper said.

I couldn't have put it better myself.  And there was similar coverage around the world. 

The Irish Independent came up with the statistic that in the past week Ireland's economic and political disintegration had been covered extensively in papers in over 70 countries.  When people here talked about humiliation on a global scale they were not exaggerating.

People here are furious about that.  But it is just one of the reasons that the once all-powerful Fianna Fail party which has dominated the country for decades is going to be reduced to a minor player in the Dail after this election.

On Wednesday of this week, Fianna Fail will elect a new party leader to succeed Brian Cowen (either Martin or Finance Minister Brian Lenihan).  But it's not going to make much difference.  They are facing Armageddon.

The other reasons Fianna Fail will be decimated are at home rather than abroad -- 450,000 people out of work, 1,000 a week emigrating, and businesses struggling to keep going as the recession gets ever deeper here and spending falls even further as people get more fearful and depressed. 

For those who have jobs, the first two weeks of this year have been an eye opener as the tax hikes kicked in and took a much bigger bite out of pay -- suddenly everyone could see what the cutbacks dictated by the IMF actually mean, and they know it's going to get worse and continue for years.

While all of this has been going on, Fianna Fail has for the past week been consumed with its own problems -- and that has made people even more angry with the party. 

And all of that has resulted over the past week in what can only be called the character assassination of Cowen.  This has been so far over the top that it has done no credit to the Irish media -- and it has prompted the foreign press to follow in the same tone of derision. 

It was the botched reshuffle of his ministerial team that actually brought Cowen down and, in retrospect, it was a stupid thing to have tried, particularly without clearing it explicitly in advance with the ever pure prima donnas in the Green Party.  

But we need to remember that he was attempting a reshuffle, not mass murder.

It probably seemed like a good idea just after he had been re-elected as leader last week.   Fianna Fail needed something to change the perception of the party even slightly before the election. 

A few ministers had already let it be known that they did not want to run for re-election -- they had been ministers for a decade and did not fancy going into opposition, or losing their seats, which was now possible given the position of the party in the polls.  Rather than suffer that humiliation they decided to get out and take their fat pensions.

So Cowen had the opportunity to get a few fresh faces into ministerial positions, which would give the impression of a party renewing itself and changing. 

Yes, cynical to some degree, but it's something all parties do, although a reshuffle in midterm is more usual than one just before an election. 

The Greens reacted as though the sky had fallen in.  At a dramatic press conference they said they were leaving the government.

And Cowen was caught because without the support of the Greens there would not be a majority in the Dail to approve the new ministerial team.

So he had to abandon his reshuffle, and from that moment on he had lost all authority both within his own party and in the country at large The opposition, understandably, demanded an election as soon as possible.

It is an ignominious end to his time as taoiseach.  But Cowen's big mistake was not to try the minor stroke of a reshuffle.  It was to assume that the Greens would not act like a bunch of choirboys looking for the right moment to get out and make themselves look good. 

He should have known that you can rely on the Greens about as much as you can rely on wind power to produce electricity all year round.  Most of the voters see their behavior as self-serving, and they are going to be wiped out in the election as well.

The treatment of Cowen in the media over the botched reshuffle was completely out of proportion.  He was portrayed as detached and delusional. 

The fact that he was down and clearly on the way out did not stop the media kicking him.   Some of them even ascribed his behavior over the past week to alcohol ...  the old garglegate smear about his drinking was brought up again to offer an explanation.

None of this was fair.  Everyone who knows him says that Cowen is honest, decent, modest, and -- for a politician -- highly intelligent.   If he had a fault, it may have been that he relied too much on his intelligence and his instinct rather than on long hours of hard work. 

Of course he made mistakes, serious ones. He was minister for finance during Bertie Ahern’s time as taoiseach when they continued to stoke the property boom long after warning bells were being sounded by expert voices. 

But then he's a lawyer, not an economist. Yes he was culpable, but so were many others, like the heads of the Central Bank, the Regulator's office, the mandarins in the Department of Finance, all of whom should have known better. 

And if they felt their advice was being ignored, they could have resigned.  The fact is, none of them did.
By the time he became taoiseach the air was already hissing out of the bubble, even though many people still could not hear it.

Although he gave the impression of being cool and in control, Cowen was overwhelmed soon after he took power.  But then so were the top civil servants in the Department of Finance and the other economic experts.
When the tide of money ran out and the banks said they were about to collapse and with them the Irish economy, Cowen buckled and gave them the unlimited state guarantee they wanted.

This was done before any real examination of the banks could take place ... and as we now know the banks lied (and the people who lied are still free to enjoy their huge pensions).

Instead of a temporary liquidity problem of a few billion, it turned out the banks had a solvency problem of tens of billions. All of which, thanks to the guarantee, has now been transformed into state debt.  On top of the mounting deficit, that was what effectively bankrupted the country. 

The markets spotted this and stopped lending to us, except at a prohibitive 9%. So the IMF/EU had to ride to our rescue, to stop the collapse of the state here when funds would run out some time later this year.  

Except that as we now realize, instead of rescuing us they are burying us under a mountain of debt.This deal was Cowen's greatest failing, but again he was not solely to blame. 

Still, the buck stops with him, which is why he's finished.  He deserved better -- better advice, better luck. 
The country is now on an election footing.   February 25 is the likely date. 

At some point Fine Gael and Labor are going to have to spell out what they are going to do.  They could start by telling us, in detail, exactly what they are going to do about the great IMF/EU con job. 

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