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Lenihan's national unity call to face crisis

The Minister for Finance Mr Brian Lenihan has dramatically called for an all-party "united national effort" to halt the country's financial collapse.

"I would very much welcome anything that might lead to a united national effort to deal with our difficulties," he told the Sunday Independent from Washington last night. He said he would welcome "all-party discussions".

Mr Lenihan's declaration appears to disagree with the views of the Taoiseach Mr Brian Cowen who, on Friday, ruled out talks on a four-year 'super Budget', and said he would only welcome proposals from the Opposition if they were done "step by step".

The Government now seems to have three different strategies.

The Minister for the Environment and leader of the Greens John Gormley called for "consensus talks" and an all-party forum to discuss a four-year plan to deal with the "grave" state of the Irish economy. Such a plan has the support of such heavyweights as former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and former EU Commissioners Ray MacSharry and Peter Sutherland.

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But then Mr Cowen declined to back the proposal and instead suggested the opposition parties should come forward with plans which could be considered by the Government. Mr Cowen said political consensus on the Budget would be welcome but he ruled out detailed talks with the Opposition and suggested they come up with their own proposals.

"If words have any ordinary meaning, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, is saying no to his coalition partner John Gormley," the Irish Times editorial said yesterday.

Now, Mr Lenihan's comments to the Sunday Independent clearly go much further than the Taoiseach and are closer to the Gormley position that an all-party "united national effort" is needed to deal with the financial crisis over the four years to 2014.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent from the US, Mr Lenihan said that government was prepared to give information to the Opposition about the forthcoming Budget but the nub of the matter was "do we share a common analysis of the problem with them".

Both Fine Gael and Labour "appear to agree" with the target of reducing the deficit to 3 per cent of national wealth by 2014, he said.

"The gap of €19bn has to be closed in that period but important decisions have yet to be made as to how exactly it will be done" he said. "No final figure has yet been agreed as to how much of the gap should be closed in the next Budget. We are prepared to give them information and at the moment I can't say anything further than that."

Fine Gael spokesman Michael Noonan has been told that he will be given access to the figures next Wednesday but some opposition figures believe this may be an effort to "suck them (the opposition) into the mess", according to one source.

Government sources also believe that only cuts of over €4bn next December, as signalled by Minister for Social Protection Eamon O'Cuiv -- who put the figure at €4.3bn -- can save Ireland from further attacks on the international financial markets.

In an effort to bolster support for the Budget, the Government is now offering to genuinely give the Opposition "all the facts" but according to sources is also using transparency as "a weapon" to get the Opposition onside in the national interest.

Speaking at a Fine Gael presidential dinner in Dublin last night, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said: "We will cut the budget deficit to 3 per cent by 2014 and we recognise the need for a four-year fiscal planning horizon."

"Never again will we allow bad politics and reckless banks destroy the economy," said Mr Kenny.

There was also criticism of the Government from former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald yesterday. He criticised the Government's failure to secure real savings in the Budget out of the Croke Park deal. "Unfortunately, the Government seems to have totally missed the chance to make savings in this Budget from the Croke Park agreement. What seems to be a very tired Government has thus permitted the loss of six vital months, a loss that will now necessitate either more painful cuts or more tax increases than should have been necessary."

Sunday Independent