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A change of guard will not change the system

IN A tribute last week, the Taoiseach pointedly referred to the "calm" contribution to Cabinet of his Minister for Defence, Tony Killeen, who has announced his imminent retirement from politics.

Of the many qualities in the make-up of a person, it would seem that calmness is among those most highly regarded by Brian Cowen, the Buddha of the Blueball, as they might say down home.

Which is fair enough when people may be losing the head all around you, but easy when you have a six-figure pension to fall back on, not six years on the dole to contemplate, the bailiffs at the door.

It would help, of course, if alongside the Little Book of Calm, Brian Cowen had a coherent strategy for survival and then renewal, the outcomes of which may indicate that he really did have a clue what he was doing.

Sometimes calmness can be mistaken for indifference, or worse, for incompetence: many times throughout the past almost three years there has been a crying need for a little less calm and a little more action, properly communicated.

That is not to say that Tony Killeen was either indifferent or incompetent. He was neither: he was, shall we say, adequate, in terms of the job he had to do, inspecting guards of honour and the like; more than that, he is also one of life's true gentlemen.

The point is that if others in Cabinet had remained calm, then Brian Cowen, against all odds, might well be facing into

another full year as Taoiseach, during which, he would have hoped, things might have improved somewhat for him, for Fianna Fail, and for the country. Ho-hum . . .

I am talking, of course, about the Greens, who, a few days after the admittedly fairly traumatic arrival of the EU-IMF, demanded that a General Election be held by January's end, seemingly in a collective rush of blood.

From that moment, the game was up for Brian Cowen, and for his most unpopular of governments, and this after he had vested at least as much energy in keeping the show on the road this past while as in achieving an outcome which may allow us to regret his passing as Taoiseach.

He remains leader of Fianna Fail still, of course -- a position I expect he may hold for some time yet, but that's another story . . .

The Government, meanwhile, has managed to knock another couple of months out of it, that it may belatedly put in place somebody to seek to replace the deadwood which should have long since been cut down. (I genuinely did not know that Michael Woods was still a TD.)

An election in March is widely anticipated, although I would not be surprised if it were held in April, not that it makes a pile of difference, after which the removal of this Government will be welcomed, if for nothing else other than it may help draw a line under what has gone before.

The election campaign is already under way, if not yet at full steam: it promises to be a long, drawn-out affair, taking us up to Easter by the time a new Government is installed.

If the prospect of four months of transparent politicking does not fill you with dread, then I do not know what will, but, I suppose, that is one of the drawbacks of democracy.

We can only hope that the campaign proper will be enlightened, but I expect more by way of black entertainment, of the vaudeville variety: Brian Cowen on the look-out for custard pies; Eamon Gilmore, veins bulging, struggling for the finish line; and Enda Kenny, of course, whenever he opens his mouth, virtually or otherwise.

A new Government, of Fine Gael and Labour, or of whatever other machination, fills me with neither gladness nor foreboding: after an initial burst of enthusiasm, I expect such a Government to be more or less as it ever was -- of the people all right, but by the civil service and for the elites.

John Bruton, Fine Gael's candidate-in-waiting for the Presidency, said last week that Ireland was run by civil servants who use TDs and Senators to administer their rule.

It may be a truly shocking admission, but not a surprise: if ever there was a damning indictment of a system of politics, this was it, the opinion as expressed by a former Taoiseach, no less.

Bruton might have added that our civil servants are used by the bureaucrats in Brussels to administer here the rule of European elites, but he didn't say that, he being a Europhile fatcat himself.

Talk of political reform has moved centre stage, however, with crude instruments, such as the abolition of the Senate, cutting the number of TDs, and increasing Dail sitting days, being wielded with increasing abandon.

It is just that, of course -- talk.

A commission of some sort will eventually be set up, comprising the usual suspects, under the influence of the civil service, to kick around the issue for a while, before a hotchpotch compromise emerges which may, or may not, be put before the people, eventually, in 10 to 20 years' time.

No meaningful reform will emerge, I expect, not when such reform seems mainly to be motivated by a relatively small saving of money which may accrue, rather than what should be driving it, which is, believe it or not, government of the people, by the people, for the people.

To achieve that idealistic concept, three issues must be examined: our system of proportional representation; the whip system which sustains an all-powerful executive; and a rebalancing of power from a faceless civil service, as part of a root-and-branch overhaul of the public sector.

I do not see that happening any time soon, but already, and for the next three to four months, I see politics as usual at play, only more intense, inevitably, not unlike children on a Christmas morning: don't like that one, here, try this one.

For presents of toys and chocolate, you can substitute promises and sound bites so hollow they may beat a distant drum: every election they do it, every election we buy it, seduced more in hope than in expectation that this time it will be different.

Well, I have news for you: it won't.

Sunday Independent