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Cowen quitting as party leader won't alter his terrible legacy


PARTY OVER: Brian Cowen has finally admitted defeat and stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail, but it remains to be seen if the public will forgive him for the legacy he has left behind. Photo: David Conachy

PARTY OVER: Brian Cowen has finally admitted defeat and stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail, but it remains to be seen if the public will forgive him for the legacy he has left behind. Photo: David Conachy

PARTY OVER: Brian Cowen has finally admitted defeat and stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail, but it remains to be seen if the public will forgive him for the legacy he has left behind. Photo: David Conachy

It is hard to wrap up in one word or phrase the sense of bewilderment, disappointment, shame and anger that has gripped the body politic and broader society over the last few days. Perhaps "betrayal" is the closest description of the outrageous, incompetent and cynical series of events that we have witnessed.

For those of us who give loyalty and honour to our country, our democracy, our history and to basic standards of decency, seeing the implosion of any elected government is not a pretty sight. On this occasion, it is sickening. Just like the "car crash in slow motion" road safety ads we see on TV, our attention is simultaneously attracted and repelled. Except that it is Irish democracy which ends up sitting figuratively in the wheelchair in this particular slow-motion car crash.

To pull ministers out of office who had served long terms as members of the executive in crucial areas such as health, justice, and enterprise, and to replace them for a few hectic pre-election weeks with people who could not possibly read themselves into their new roles, was always going to be a crude, cynical plan to create the illusion of novelty and freshness, and to attempt to sever all ties of political accountability and responsibility on the part of our constitutional Executive.

It was a shameful plan born out of an attitude of desperation, cunning and contempt for the intelligence of the citizens of Ireland. It was a stunt that would not have even occurred to any former Taoiseach that I can think of -- let alone have been implemented by any of them.

Could Brian Cowen have seriously thought that people who know nothing about health or justice or foreign affairs could pose for a few weeks as "new brushes" in those portfolios and simply wave away the records of their predecessors?

The alarming and almost instant chemical transformation last weekend in Cowen's demeanour from sullen, smouldering, resentful and war-weary victim to his "I am a fighter" mode was striking. His mojo momentarily appeared to have returned but, as we now know, it has departed equally quickly. It raises the question whether his only real priorities were to do with himself and with his party. It raises difficult questions about how these contrasting humours could co-exist in one man.

Where exactly was that "fighter" spirit in his extended morose period -- during the years of Bertie's

abject performances in the tribunal, negotiations for a bank guarantee, Nama, Lisbon I and II, "garglegate", Budget "U-turns", Ictu "days of action", Croke Park deal talks, and IMF/ECB negotiations?

Like some clever stratagem of Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, Cowen's reshuffle plan left him shell-shocked, holding the dynamite when it exploded. But he is not the only victim.

Now we have a wrecked, paralysed Cabinet of nine persons pretending to be a Government. That is some achievement for a member state of the EU

The Greens should feel well satisfied with their part in this shambles -- by their own little stunt they have grown from a seventh to a quarter of the Cabinet.

They claim that they were worried by the potential negative reaction among the public to Cowen's planned stunt.

Well, they had every reason to be concerned. They were themselves expert in botched reshuffles. These are the very same people who came to an insane, secret deal with Bertie in 2007 (to be implemented in 2009) to rotate Gormley and Cuffe, to rotate Sargent and White and to create a new ministry of state specially for the "eff-u-sive" Paul Gogarty. That deal, too, was to be sprung on an unsuspecting public. But, once revealed, it was abandoned in a hail of laughter. John Gormley realised, on mature reflection, that the "national interest" required him rather than Cuffe to remain in the Custom House. Quelle surprise!

That silly Green secret cabinet reshuffle deal followed an election in which Trevor told the public that he would not enter into government with Fianna Fail, resigned on principle as leader when they did, but nonetheless took a job as Minister outside Cabinet! We also saw the resignation of a senator who was apparently annoyed by Cowen's refusal to implant her into the cabinet of an unwilling Commissioner Maire Geoghegan Quinn!

Some crowd! You couldn't make it up!

Yet, it was on the supposed commonsense and acquiescence of such people that Cowen relied in order to perpetrate his ill-fated reshuffle. The idiocy of the reshuffle was only matched by the idiocy of relying on the Greens. He should have known that they were completely volatile -- especially in the light of their famous demand for a January election date sprung on him at their in famous "baby-in-the-lap" press conference.

Now we are in the unhappy position of having a wrecked economy and a wrecked government. The Irish State has been utterly discredited.

Can you just imagine what the Cabinet meetings of the nine "walking wounded" will be like for the next two months? Group therapy sessions for the politically un-dead?! "Let's join hands and make contact with the living!"

In truth, Brian Cowen's missing mojo has exacted a heavy toll on us all. Torpor and complacency at the top led his Government to ignore the economic realities and procrastinate from late 2007 onwards. We were still playing footsie with social partnership, still increasing public spending, still handing out pay increases for 18 months when all the tell-tale signs of impending crisis were there to be seen. The Colm McCarthy and Don Thornhill reports on spending and taxation were commissioned and deferred. Third-level fees and local authority financing have been cynically deferred for others to deal with. The Nama process took a year when it could have been done in four months.

Amazingly, it was only a mutiny by the backbenchers that halted Cowen's plan to solve our problem with unpaid public sector leave! Do you still remember that one? And who persisted with the calamitous Croke Park deal? That unfortunately has Cowen's fingerprints all over it.

No elected politician sat at the negotiating table with the IMF/ ECB team. Why not? But they are now hinting at renegotiating the deal that they allowed to be struck.

The departure of Brian Cowen of leader of Fianna Fail, while he remains as Taoiseach, in no way changes the sense of the foregoing, which was written before his decision became public.

The issue is whether he can function properly as Taoiseach, despite the damage he has done while in office.

There will be electoral retribution. And rightly so. Decent people will lose their seats simply because they funked dealing with incompetence at the top.

But, as I wrote last week, angry gestures in the polling booth will only worsen the situation.

All the signs are that there are plenty of people with covert, malign political intentions who hope to reap the whirlwind of public discontent.

We have to elect a Dail that will elect a competent Executive and will hold it to account.

Time is running out.

Michael McDowell is a senior counsel and a former leader of the Progressive Democrats

Sunday Independent