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James Downey: We are crying out for a change of Government

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NOW that Christmas preparations begin in September, it's no wonder that pantomime came to the stage in October. This time, though, most of the action took place off the stage.

John Gormley had a bright idea. Get the leaders of the main parties together and let them reach consensus on the moves we need, and the timescale, to put some order into the national finances. Who could turn him down?

Well, the Taoiseach, for a start. Unfortunately, Brian Cowen had not been alerted in advance. More to the point, his first instinct was to reject the Green leader's proposal.

In Cowen's world, power belongs to Fianna Fail. Power, that is, to do the wrong things or to do nothing at all while he wanders on the shores of the lakes of Pontchartrain.

Within two days, he changed his tune. The reason isn't clear. Maybe he figured out that he was in a win-win situation.

Perhaps the restive Fianna Fail backbenchers were right when they thought they saw strained relations and differing opinions between the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister. Or maybe he just wanted to please the Greens.

At all events, a statement appeared which he could not possibly have written himself. It was statesmanlike and elegantly written. Those officials really earn their €200,000 a year. He was all for consensus and an early meeting.

So, for two-and-a-quarter hours on Wednesday, he talked with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore. And by the end, they had agreed on . . . nothing.

Not exactly nothing, as he could and did argue. They agreed on reducing the fiscal deficit to 3pc by 2014. But for good or ill, they had all agreed on that point long ago.

It was instructive to observe the mood -- something between scepticism and embarrassment -- of the journalists who covered the talks. They had known all along that the curtain would eventually come down on a damp squib.

Within a matter of hours, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), no less, would fling not a damp squib but a bomb into the debate.

Although the bomb came from a seemingly unlikely source, it had been a long time in preparation and the argument put forward by the ESRI was familiar.

What will be the effect of a four-year programme of tax rises and public spending cuts?

Like a great many economists and the tiny number of politicians who have any understanding of the subject, the institute fears that it will wreck all hopes of recovery and lead us into a "lost decade".

That happens to be my own opinion. More than once in this column, I have argued that the Government's policies will make recovery impossible. But we have painted ourselves into a corner and the longer time goes on, the harder it becomes to find an alternative.

We have signed up with Brussels for the four-year programme. If we abandoned it, or even tried to amend it, we would offend the European Commission, the ECB, the IMF and the bond markets.

So the alternative that began to emerge on Thursday is feeble in the extreme. It boils down to substituting a six-year period for the four years envisaged at present. The idea is that if we make a good start, our real rulers in Brussels and Frankfurt might give us two years' grace.

Brian Lenihan came on board quickly, though without mentioning a timescale. Was he influenced at all by the views of the Fianna Fail backbenchers?

Leo Varadkar seemed to row back a little bit from his earlier argument in favour of front-loading the tax rises and spending cuts. When the Sunday newspapers appear on the news stands, we can expect to see thousands upon thousands of words of passionate argument on the subject.

But would substituting six years for four really make much of a difference? Might it not make matters worse? Until such time as we get the deficit under control, the national debt and the interest on the debt will continue to rise -- and continue to be swollen by the horrific costs of bailing out the banks.

In the meantime, we will still face two dreadful problems. One, there is no substantial sign of the world recovery on which so much depends. Two, the Government has wasted what now looks less like the real crisis than a breathing space.

In Britain, to go no farther afield, banks have been nationalised and sold back into the private sector, where they are now making profits. Ours continue to stagnate.

Our Government has not had the courage to implement the full proposals from An Bord Snip Nua. The quangoes live on.

Mary Harney has announced cuts of €600m in the Health Service Executive. They will hit front-line services while thousands of administrative staff draw salaries for doing nothing.

The list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on until May 2011 (the likeliest date for a General Election) or May 2012, the Taoiseach's favoured date.

There is only one way to overcome this state of paralysis: a change of Government -- not John Gormley's 'national Government' and not a consensus of political leaders but a popular consensus. However, a popular consensus cannot be built without leadership, or without hope. As matters stand, we have neither. And it cannot be built on a debate about how long a deficit-reduction programme should take -- a subject that not one person in 10 can understand.

The real questions are these: do we want to retain -- or regain -- control over our own affairs?

Are we willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that? Do we trust any combination of political parties to lead us?

If we cannot answer yes to all three, we are in deeper trouble than we ever imagined.

jdowney@independent.ie

Irish Independent