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Another day of strife in a Nama republic

THE Cabinet -- all seven of them -- came together for an early meeting last Monday morning. They discussed a range of issues over the course of two hours, but made no decisions on anything before going their separate ways in their state cars.

And were it not for the tragedy at Cork Airport last Thursday morning, in which six people lost their lives, it's arguable whether or not anyone would have seen any of the ministers from the outgoing administration anywhere other than at party policy launches -- or, God forbid, on their doorsteps looking for votes.

That was what Taoiseach Brian Cowen was up to last Tuesday afternoon in Edenderry. Not for himself, it should be said, but for his brother Barry, who hopes to 'inherit' the seat first won by their late father, Ber.

Never one to admit defeat -- even when it stares him squarely in the face -- the Taoiseach was rolling with the punches as he pounded the election trail, declaring blithely how there was "no immediate magic wand" to solve the country's problems. Easy for him to say with his €150,000 per annum pension, you might think

During better times, the image of our Taoiseach being chauffeured around by his garda driver to bang on doors for his little brother at election time would doubtless be met with good humour by the press and the public alike.

To give Cowen's parish-pump shenanigans a more current perspective, however, one only needs to take the publication by the IMF last Wednesday of its first interim report on Ireland.

Employing the kind of language we used to associate with Third World countries incapable of ordering their own affairs, the Washington-based lender of last resort describes Ireland as a "fragile political environment" where "political developments have been turbulent".

"Due to the imminent elections, the first and second review of the programme will be combined and conducted only when the (new) government is in place," the IMF concludes.

How decent of them to wait for us, you might think.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our other, more important, masters in Brussels. For while the members of our current Government are devoting all their time and energy to canvassing in the dim hope that they may yet save their own seats in the face of the electorate's wrath, the EU is gearing up for a major summit where member states will decide the future shape of the European Financial Stability Facility, and by extension the interest rate and repayment schedule of our €85bn bailout package.

While the summit itself won't take place until the end of March, Ireland's ability to argue its case on a renegotiation of the onerous average interest rate of 5.8 per cent we are being charged by our overlords in Brussels will not be helped any by the timing of this election.

Indeed, as a direct result of Cowen exercising his prerogative as Taoiseach, the 31st Dail will not come together until March 9 -- leaving precious little time for the new government to prepare its case for an adjustment of the terms of Ireland's agreement with the EU/IMF.

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While this should be a matter of serious concern for every Irish citizen, it doesn't appear to have registered with our incumbent Cabinet.

Indeed, speaking to the Sunday Independent last Friday afternoon as she canvassed support in her constituency of Dun Laoghaire- Rathdown, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport (and Enterprise, Trade and Innovation) Mary Hanafin said our European partners "would understand".

Asked for comment on the imminent EU summit and the IMF's statement last Wednesday that Ireland was politically in turmoil, Ms Hanafin said: "Every single prime minister there (in the EU) has been involved in elections in their own countries. So they understand where we're coming from. And that meeting is not until the end of March, and Brian Lenihan has said that immediately after the election, he will brief everybody on the recapitalisation of the banks.

"But in relation to the EU/IMF deal, they (the Opposition) were brought in before Christmas, and they met with Ajai Chopra, so they know the details of it."

Asked for her views on the timing of the election in the light of the country's parlous financial position, Ms Hanafin conceded that it was poor, but went on to lay the blame for this firmly with the Green Party. She said: "Naturally, our preference all along would have been even to get the year because the Government had until next year to run. Undoubtedly, things economically would have settled down by then. But politics is democratic, and elections are democratic, and it wasn't of our choosing, but we are where we are. We didn't have an option when it comes to that debate. The Greens pulled out of government."

But wasn't it the Taoiseach's sole prerogative as to when the election would be called?

On this, Ms Hanafin insisted that "once the Green Party pulled out, you had to call the election. We didn't have the support in the Dail. As you know, we were going to have the vote of confidence in the Dail on the Tuesday, which we would have lost. And then the election had to be held within the 21 to 28 days. It wasn't our choice, but that's the way it fell."

And while the minister is under no illusion with regard to the battle she will have on her hands to hold on to her seat in Dun Laoghaire -- a constituency where the number of seats has been reduced from five to four in this election -- she was reluctant to criticise Cowen for his refusal to step down earlier as leader of Fianna Fail.

Ms Hanafin conceded, however, that it probably would have helped the party's electoral fortunes had Cowen gone from the leadership sooner.

"Look, I've no doubt that his (Cowen's) heart is in the right place. But now, looking back, even (if he had stepped down) last September, it would have given us a new and fresh start.

Asked if, as Napoleon would have put it, Cowen had been an unlucky general for the country, she said: "I think he was desperately unlucky from day one.

"My father actually said it at the time, that this was an unlucky Dail. Two TDs died and a number of people were very ill. Three senators died. We had no deaths in the previous Dail. So from that point of view, we were very unlucky.

"We started unlucky with the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty, and after that it was just one thing after another; definitely unlucky. Give me a lucky general."

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