News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Buck stops at top: Cowen has failed his first big test

Published 14/06/2008 | 00:00

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An unholy alliance ranging from the impossible to the unspeakable has inflicted defeat on the political establishment

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NEVER in the history of unholy alliances has a coalition ranging from the impossible to the unspeakable inflicted on the Irish establishment such a smashing blow as the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

Among its chief components were people who wanted us dominated by Britain, people who wanted us ruled by the United States, and Little Irelanders who want (God forbid) to rule us themselves.

All of them should have been swatted away weeks ago by the forces of the establishment. They were not. Why not?

No blame attaches to the voters. All our citizens are entitled to cast their ballots as they please, for whatever reason, without compulsion and in secret. All citizens are entitled to their own free judgment. The blame lies where it should always be held to lie, at the top.

At the top, and a very uncomfortable top it is today, stands Brian Cowen. He has failed his first big test as Taoiseach. Had he won, his reputation and standing would have been enormously enhanced. Now that he has lost the vote, he has lost with it a part of his authority in the country and in his party. And that loss is not alleviated by the fact that he shares the defeat with so many others.

True, the entire establishment and specifically the two mainstream opposition parties got a poke in the eye as well.

It is particularly painful for Fine Gael and their leader, Enda Kenny, who fought a brave and patriotic campaign but could not "deliver" his own Mayo constituency.

But the Taoiseach's position is unique, and it was up to him and the Fianna Fail Party in the first place to persuade the people that ratification of the treaty was essential in Ireland's national interest.

And part of the reason for their wretched campaign was that they were preoccupied with the crisis in which Bertie Ahern resigned the leadership and Brian Cowen succeeded him. Much will be written in times to come of the cleverness and smoothness of the operation. But while it lasted, the referendum, and the economy, were eclipsed.

Still, the Government had some weeks in which to make its case, and in normal circumstances it would have held the initiative.

This time, however, the Government had thrown the advantage to its opponents, whose strength and ruthlessness it had underestimated. In addition, it was the 'No' campaigners and not Fianna Fail who profited from the delay in announcing a date -- a delay caused by Bertie Ahern's dithering as his leadership tottered.

In the end, the 'Yes' campaigners found themselves in the unhappy position of spending almost their entire time trying to rebut specious arguments, which changed day by day and almost minute by minute.

That is no exaggeration. On Tuesday night, with exactly 37 minutes to go to the supposed 24-hour "moratorium" on debate, a Libertas spokeswoman threw a final, previously unheard, allegation into the cauldron along with all the other toads and newts.

While the Government struggled to answer the unexpected and often irrelevant accusations, it had to struggle also with two other problems.

Heaven protect us from our friends! It was bad enough for Cowen to say that he himself had not read the Lisbon Treaty, much worse for Commissioner Charlie McCreevy to declare that no sane person would bother to read it. Worse again, that the President of the EU Commission and the French foreign minister warned us that we would suffer if we rejected it.

McCreevy unwittingly reinforced the argument against supporting something the voters did not understand. The other comments pointed up the Government's second problem. How to make the positive case instead of dwelling on the (certainly dire, but unquantifiable) consequences of failure?

The new Taoiseach tried to solve it in the same way that he turned the general election campaign round a year ago, by stolidly insisting that we would benefit from staying on course, and letting the threats hang in the air.

Could he perform the same trick twice? And, crucially, could he get a sufficient number of Fianna Fail voters to the polling stations? The result shows that he could not and did not. By the same token, another question has been answered. His promises to the farmers -- impossible to honour -- did not work.

He made a different kind of mistake at an early stage when he unfairly accused Fine Gael of not pulling their weight. That was a thoughtless Fianna Fail-style knee-jerk, and he has received his just reward for it.

Now he has to guide the country through some of the worst economic times we have faced since the 1980s -- pessimists might say since the 1930s. He has to do this while carrying not one but four heavy burdens: the referendum defeat, disimproved relations with the trade unions, the general lack of trust in political leaders, and the downside of his own virtues.

His outstanding characteristics are his intelligence and his bluntness. They combine to make him intolerant of nonsense and to express his irritation too openly. Who could forbear to fume at outrageous untruths about euthanasia, conscription and the grotesque proposition that a 'Yes' vote would harm inward investment?

The sad fact is that the 'No' vote will indubitably harm investment, and that is only the beginning. Cowen will have to learn to live with it. And he will have to learn to bite his tongue.

It is all very well to say, truthfully, that any sensible person must agree with some statement of his. But he will have to learn to say it in a less dismissive way.

Maybe he will prove himself a good learner.

Too late, though. Too late, possibly, for his authority. Too late, certainly, for our lost influence in Europe.

jdowney@independent.ie

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