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A nation's outrage to drive Cowen out

THE Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and his Government are at risk of being ignominiously driven from office, such is the level of anger sweeping the country this weekend.

The people have broadly welcomed the arrival of the IMF, are largely indifferent to emotive sentiment associated with a perceived loss of national sovereignty, but are roundly furious at the manner in which the Government has “lied” about the unprecedented events of last week.

As the Government now strives to further “spin” itself out of what is, by any measure, a glaringly obvious credibility deficit, its efforts to do so will be hampered by a disintegration of cohesion within its own ranks. This weekend, the Taoiseach is at odds with the governor of the Central Bank; the Minister for Finance is in agreement with the governor and, therefore, at odds with the Taoiseach; and at least two senior Cabinet ministers are smarting at having been so blatantly exposed by the political leadership of Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan.

In an attempt to hold on to power, the Government is expected to attempt to explain away its misleading of a bynow hugely irate public upon the publication of a four-year economic plan on either Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. But this weekend, from within its own ranks, the Government has been told that it had fundamentally, some would say fatally, undermined the trust of the people. Today the former Minister for Defence, Willie O’Dea, a Fianna Fail TD, writing in the Sunday Independent, says “the Government’s actions and comments over the past 10 days have fundamentally undermined public trust”.

It now seems certain that Fine Gael and Labour, in particular, will seize upon public anger in an attempt to remove the Government, possibly before Christmas. Mr Cowen has already rejected calls for his resignation from an opposition that has scented his blood and that of the Government, but it is unlikely that either Fine Gael or Labour will leave it at that. Yesterday there was word from within both parties that they may move to mobilise the power of the people to drive the Government from office. “The people are ready to march on Government Buildings, like I have never sensed before,” a senior Fine Gael figure said yesterday.

But also in this newspaper, the economist Colm McCarthy echoes the view of the people on the question of national sovereignty when he says that while blame is necessary and unavoidable, “some of the outpourings during the week have been hysterical”. A nationwide Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research poll, the first to be taken since the arrival of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and EU chiefs to, effectively, bail out a bankrupt country, has established precisely what is causing such widespread anger this weekend.

The poll has found, in summary, that the people are deeply resentful at the manner in which they believe the Government “lied” to them last week, and, consequentially, at the apparent lack of respect inherent in the Coalition’s public relations strategy. As Mr O’Dea writes today: “Putting out ministers to insist that the emperor is beautifully robed when onlookers can plainly see he is stark naked cannot be justified as a media strategy, even by the most inept of communications managers.” Asked whether they welcomed the IMF intervention, 63 per cent said yes and 37 per cent said no. Asked if there was tactical advantage in the Government “lying” to the public last week, 79 per cent said no and 21 per cent said yes.

The country is divided, but largely indifferent, on the question of whether the events of last week were a betrayal of the men and women of 1916: 47 per cent said yes, but 53 per cent said no. Yesterday, talks between Irish officials and representatives of the IMF, ECB and EU resumed. The discussions centre on the public finances and external support for the banking sector. They are expected to continue for a number of days. The Government’s fouryear economic plan is likely to be published, possibly as early as this week. Lest there be any doubt, the European Commission (EC) has warned that the plan is subject to its “thorough assessment”.

Upon publication of the plan, it is expected that the Government will formally submit a request for emergency funding to the European authorities and the IMF, an application which will be considered by eurozone finance ministers in the first instance. But already there are reports emanating from within the EC that the plan, which envisages cuts and tax increases amounting to €15bn over four years, may be insufficient. There seems little doubt that these matters will be decided by the European authorities and the IMF, with the involvement of the Government here. A government source yesterday claimed that the plan, as prepared, had been broadly accepted.

He said: “The process we are involved in at the moment is to access funds for Ireland going forward, as we have withdrawn from the financial markets on the advice of the NTMA.” A most serious issue facing the Government now, however, is whether any of its declarations can be accepted as even approaching the truth after the events of the last week. Last weekend, Reuters and the BBC reported that the Government was in preliminary talks with the EU with a view to seeking financial support. While there was an element of Europe-inspired pressure being applied on the Government through leaks to the international media, the Government’s repeated denial of the substance of the leaks turned out to be untrue. Ministers Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern, in particular, were pushed forward to deny the reports, which Mr Ahern, at one stage, described as “fiction”. Both ministers are now said to be deeply unhappy at the manner in which they were so publicly exposed by Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan.

The credibility issue engulfing the Government was last week sharply illustrated on the RTE Prime Time programme, when the former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte, engaged in a sharp exchange with Equality Minister Pat Carey. Mr Rabbitte said to Mr Carey: “You ought to be ashamed to show your face in this studio after you have brought our country to penury tonight, and the damage that you have done to people’s livelihoods, and start the young people emigrating again. You have destroyed this economy and you engaged in lies over the weekend.

“It’s about time you went because you can do no more damage to this country, and coming on here with your oul palaver about this and that and about structuring, etc. “You ought to be ashamed of where you have brought us tonight.” Mr Carey said: “No, I’m not ashamed.” Mr Rabbitte replied: “Well you ought to be, that’s the problem with you — when you ought to be ashamed you don’t have any shame.”

The Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research poll has found that 81 per cent believed Mr Rabbitte was right to attack Mr Carey in such a manner, while only 19 per cent felt he was wrong to do so. Respondents were also asked if they agreed with the claims of ministers that poor regulation of the banks was the sole cause of the current crisis: 69 per cent said no, 31 per cent said yes. It was not until Thursday morning that a confused and increasingly anxious public was reassured somewhat by the Central Bank governor, Patrick Honohan.

Mr Honohan intervened to explain that he expected a loan would be put in place, running into tens of billions of euro, to assist with Ireland’s banking emergency. But the Taoiseach repudiated Mr Honohan’s view, which he said did not necessarily reflect that of the Government. “The governor is part of the governing council of the ECB and it is a matter of public knowledge what the ECB general view has been,” Mr Cowen said.

In effect, however, Mr Cowen’s statement was also at odds with his Minister for Finance, who had told the Dail earlier in the day that he agreed with Mr Honohan’s comments. Mr Lenihan said that “a substantial contingency capital fund” could be made available to the State that could “create confidence in the firepower available but not be drawn down by the banking system”. He said this “would be a very welcome development”.

Yesterday, the former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald said: “Such an open divergence between the views of the Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance is extremely disturbing and a government so deeply divided cannot long remain in office.”