Relations between two Brians at new low
Uneasy Cowen -- Lenihan pact is falling apart under stress of crisis
Published 24/10/2010 | 05:00
The relationship between Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is more strained now than at any time since the Government was formed.
Worryingly, the tension between both men, and between officials in their respective departments, is becoming more apparent at a critical moment in the history of the State.
The Government will next month present a four-year budgetary plan to Brussels which is being described as important to continued national sovereignty, followed by the first of at least four austere Budgets on December 7.
The unease between Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan is said to have increased under the intense pressure of recent weeks. Some government sources ascribe the strain to an unprecedented level of stress, to the point that a "bunker-type mentality" is said to have developed in Government Buildings.
However, some Fianna Fail sources blame the deterioration in the relationship on the fallout from Mr Cowen's infamous radio interview last month during which he appeared to be hungover.
Meanwhile, further insight into the apparent state of mind in Government Buildings has emerged in off-the-record briefings from senior figures in Fine Gael and Labour.
A disturbing image is painted of apparently sullen and defensive officials who are said to be mostly unco-operative with the opposition and, indeed, consumed by an "extraordinarily fatalistic and unenergetic" approach.
On the relationship between Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan, a government source yesterday said: "Neither of the two Brians want it to be said that the IMF had to come in on their watch. The same applies to the senior officials in their departments.
"That is what is behind what you might call this bunker-type mentality developing in Government Buildings. It is a desperately stressful place at the moment."
The difficulty between the two men was also evident to the leaders and finance spokesmen of Fine Gael and Labour last week when they were briefed on the finances of the nation.
"There is always a bit of tension between a Taoiseach and his finance minister, but the level, or the extent of it in the current administration was surprising to us.
"As you ask me to categorise it, I would say that it is serious but subtle, but undoubtedly it's there, more so than we had been aware of before," a senior figure in the opposition said yesterday.
However, Fianna Fail sources say that a deterioration in the relationship between Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan can not simply be put down to the unprecedented pressure of work.
These sources maintain that a fissure emerged during the controversy which followed the Taoiseach's infamous radio interview at a Fianna Fail 'think-in' in Galway in September.
It is said to have worsened recently during what was a confusing period -- before Mr Cowen, at the initiative of the Greens, eventually offered to open the books in the Department of Finance to Fine Gael and Labour
And the strain became apparent to astute observers at a meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party last Tuesday -- to the extent that, sources say, something of a power struggle is currently at play between them.
Difficulties in the relationship were evident early in the lifetime of the Government, according to a senior figure who is close to both men. He said: "The Taoiseach of the day always wants to exert some influence over Finance. But it is my view that Mr Lenihan has been openly defying Mr Cowen for some time now.
"It certainly goes back to the time of public sector pay cuts, but even before that, when Mr Lenihan wanted to act more quickly on the economy and Mr Cowen seemed to be urging a more cautious approach."
In the aftermath of Mr Cowen's controversial radio interview, Mr Lenihan, who is fighting cancer, let it be known that he was willing to serve as Taoiseach, but that he would not openly challenge Mr Cowen for the position.
During the course of the week after the interview, it seemed as if Mr Cowen's days as Taoiseach might be numbered. However, he "played it well", according to a senior Fianna Fail figure last week, by letting it be known that he would not willingly step away from his position.
Mr Cowen's strategy culminated in what appeared to be a choreographed joint press conference with Mr Lenihan on the steps of Government Buildings. The political pressure on the Taoiseach eased significantly after what seemed to be a show of unity.
It has now been claimed, however, that Mr Cowen effectively "bounced" Mr Lenihan into participating in that press conference: "Mr Lenihan was not expecting it, was not ready for it, but he had to go along with it," a Fianna Fail source said.
The Taoiseach was initially reluctant to participate in "consensus" talks on budgetary strategy with Fine Gael and Labour, but was forced to do so on the initiative of the Greens. However, the Green Party Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan had already had at least one private talk with Mr Lenihan on such an initiative.
Mr Cowen learned that Mr Lenihan talked to Mr Ryan about the move only by reading about it in a newspaper.
Furthermore, the Taoiseach himself only became aware of the initiative after Green Party leader John Gormley had first announced it on national radio. Mr Gormley informed Mr Cowen of his proposal, by text message and voicemail, only after he had already made it public.
Even then, Mr Cowen remained cool on the idea: he declared that he would welcome "step by step" proposals from the Opposition, but stressed that the Government would ultimately decide on budgetary policy.
In adopting such a position, Mr Cowen was motivated by a desire to portray stability to the international media, to give the impression that the Government was in charge, capable of formulating a four-year plan and of implementing a Budget without the imput of the Opposition.
But speaking to the Sunday Independent from Washington on the weekend of the Greens' initiative, Mr Lenihan said: "I would very much welcome anything that might lead to a united national effort to deal with our difficulties."
He went further and said he would also welcome "all-party discussions", a view which he repeated on national radio that weekend.
Mr Cowen has become suspicious of Mr Lenihan's relationship with the media.
He believes Mr Lenihan has used media contacts to express opinions which are sometimes at variance with FF policy, a source said.
Meanwhile, FG and Labour sources said that there was a "palpable coldness and distaste" within the Department of Finance last week during briefings on the economy. The exchanges were said to be "sharp" with "occasional verbal confrontations".