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.