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Cowen disaster: little authority and no leadership

THE people’s protest expressed in the Lisbon Treaty referendum has plunged the Government, already beset by economic free fall, into its biggest political crisis in decades.

The painful rejection of the Taoiseach Brian Cowen has focused attention on what is being described as the “disconnect” between the political establishment and the people.

Blame and recrimination are flying on all sides this weekend, with some of the political elite even criticising voters for being “irresponsible mavericks.”

But there is no way a No vote of 53 per cent, on a remarkable turnout of 53 per cent, can be explained by the issues specific to the Lisbon Treaty.

A Government insider told the Sunday Independent: “To put it simply, the people revolted against what they were told to do.”

He added: “There is dismay, anger and confusion inside Government. There is no way the No vote can be put down to a motley collection of lobby groups who opposed the treaty. In my opinion the rejection was galvanised by a genuine mood of protest with us and disenchantment with Europhile talking heads on television.

“People are deeply worried about their own futures, and they felt that the whole Lisbon thing took no heed of their predicament.

“Clearly, they took the opportunity to give us a kick. It may seem irrational, but since when were people supposed to behave rationally all the time?”

The Taoiseach was unavailable for comment yesterday.

But while he faces an embarrassing crisis in Europe, there is no doubt that he faces crisis at home also: the electorate has expressed disconent with him and his Government.

“At the end of the day, all politics is local. The people were as mad as hell, and the top politicians didn’t seem to realise it,” a Government source said.

Just six weeks in the job, the Taoiseach, his authority now in tatters, will this week seek to explain the result to European leaders, themselves intent still on ratifying the treaty.

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Mr Cowen has already sought refuge in claims that there was confusion surrounding the issues of the treaty. Within Fianna Fail, as the recrimination continues, they are also seeking a solution in the blaming of the opposition.

But the inescapable fact is that the Irish people took the opportunity to vote against the Government, its policies during the current economic crisis, and against Mr Cowen’s style of leadership.

The Taoiseach sidelined most of his able Cabinet members in order to showcase the new power triumvirate of himself, his Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, and his Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was quietly withdrawn from the campaign after she embarrassed the Government by not knowing the number of European Commissioners.

A spokesman for the Taoiseach yesterday said that there was now a possibility of a two-tier Europe, with Ireland being left behind. “This is a difficult situation not just for Ireland, but for Europe,” he added.

No sooner had the result been announced on Friday, though, than an economist offered what may turn out to be the most cogent explanation yet as to why the treaty was definitively rejected here.

A viewpoint is emerging that, among other things, the result was a response to the economic crisis now gripping the country.

Bloxham stockbrokers chief economist Alan McQuaid said immediately after the result that the most important thing now facing the Government was not the fallout from the treaty defeat, but a restoration of consumer confidence.

While he did not go so far as to link the result to the deteriorating economy, the former Labour leader, Pat Rabbitte did. In an article in today’s Sunday Independent, Mr Rabbitte said it was “at least an open question” whether the result was a “verdict on the unease people feel on a range of challenges facing post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.”

Furthermore, in a remark which will touch a nerve in Fianna Fail — and upset the badly damaged Taoiseach even further — Mr Rabbitte said it seemed clear that Mr Cowen did not have the “connection to urban dwellers” that Bertie Ahern, his predecessor, had.

Throughout yesterday the political establishment here remained in a state of anger, but mainly confusion.

The treaty was defeated by 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent. It seems certain from the scale of the defeat that something other than specific treaty issues was concerning the electorate. Just 10 of the 43 constituencies voted in favour.

It is instructive that, in general, the picture is that working- class constituencies voted against, while better-off areas were in favour.

As Mr Rabbitte writes: “A very great many people don't trust the political class. They are in a very cranky mood. People can't be sure that their jobs are safe; petrol is dearer, the shopping basket is more expensive and negative equity is back. Did we ever think we would again see stagflation? The Live Register has increased by a third in Tallaght over the last 12 months and it is not very much different throughout the country.”

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