Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, widely criticized in recent months for apparent failure of leadership in Ireland's continually worsening economic crisis, may have steadied the ship of state with a passionate, unscripted speech which, ironically, predicted things will get worse before they get better. As thousands continue to join the dole queues and the government moved closer to inject €7 billion of capital into the two main banks, and near-crippling pension levies were proposed for public service employees, and home-owners struggled to pay mortgages they can't afford, Cowen actually drew plaudits for a speech that looked ahead to a future in which, he said, living standards are set to drop by up to 12 percent over the next few years. It was the kind of "doom and gloom" statement that might be expected to send his Fianna Fail party backbenchers scurrying to hide from the anticipated anger of constituents. Instead, because he allied his prediction to a rallying call for self-belief and a promise not to "succumb to defeatism," his 17-minute speech is being seen by even his opponents as a major indicator that this government just might have the ability to steer the nation through the tough times. Cowen told 300 influential business leaders at Dublin Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner that he knew many people were finding it difficult "to stay in the game," and that Ireland had gone from a position of unknown prosperity to suddenly "the survival stakes." But he appealed for self-belief, saying that if the Irish decided to wallow in a sea of doubt, they should not be surprised if they remain in turbulent waters. He called on all sectors to work together, saying his priority over the next few years would be jobs, jobs, jobs. "We must be prepared to take a drop in our standard of living over the next couple of years, but in the context of the growth in wealth over the past decade, we are in a better position to face it than previous generations," Cowen said. Dublin Chamber president PJ Timmins said the reaction was as emotional as it was unexpected. "I have seen absolute staunch supporters of opposition parties saying this is what we need and need desperately. There was a great sense of relief," said Timmins. Brody Sweeney, founder of O'Brien's Irish Sandwich Bars who ran as a Fine Gael candidate at the last general election, said, "He called it like it was which is rare enough for a politician. He thought it was going to get worse before it got better and he appealed to our highest values." Hewlett Packard managing director Martin Murphy described it as "the best speech ever heard from a political leader in my lifetime. People walked out feeling that here's a man who is on top of the job, who has his finger on the pulse, he is bringing people with him," Opposition leader Enda Kenny conceded, "The penny does seem to have dropped with Taoiseach Cowen, and at long last there's a sense of commitment or some demonstration of action being taken." Meanwhile, banks were resisting government demands for a two-year moratorium on repossessing homes whose owners are in arrears with mortgage repayments. A one-year moratorium was being predicted as a compromise in talks on a €7 billion deal in which taxpayers' money will be used to recapitalize the two main banks. Also, highly-paid bank chiefs face likely cuts in bonuses and salaries as part of the deal. Kenny said the pay and actions of top banking executives must be reviewed before the government finalizes its recapitalization plan for Bank of Ireland and AIB. Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin said that some top bankers are being paid "an outrageous amount of money." She told RTf radio that the government would look at executive pay as part of its recapitalization plan. Top earners at one financial institution, Irish Life and Permanent, have led by example for other bankers. The company announced on Monday that the chief executive, directors and senior managers will not be paid bonuses for last year. That means chief executive Denis Casey was paid €890,000 compared with €1.3m a year earlier. He did not take a bonus of €620,000 to which he would have been entitled. The company also froze the pay for senior managers and directors for 2009. For all other staff, any bonuses due for 2008 are to be cut by 75 percent. At rank and file worker level, Cowen and his administration are braced for protests against some of their more controversial cost-cutting measures. Up to 13,000 public service employees, likely to have to pay an average 5 percent levy as a contribution to their pensions, will hold a one day work stoppage on Thursday, February 26, across all public services if a ballot for industrial action is passed. The nationwide stoppage would affect all areas of the public service, including Garda (police) stations, social welfare offices and tax offices. Irish Nurses Organization General Secretary Liam Doran described the pension levy as an "onerous and regressive tax" on nurses and the public sector.
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