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Maurice Hayes: National interest would best be served by all-party agreement to fast-track Finance Bill

THERE are more important things to write about than the present sad state of the Fianna Fail party -- if indeed it still deserves the name, drained of political vitality by self-inflicted wounds and multiple stabs in the back.

There is the national interest, Ireland's international reputation, and public confidence in democratic politics and in Irish politicians, all of which have been put even more at risk by the shenanigans of the past week.

All of this calls for an early general election, a clearing of the decks and the restoration of confidence and a sense of direction to the conduct of the nation's business -- and as quickly as possible.

It is not good enough that the Government of the country should be put on automatic pilot for six or eight weeks while the Soldiers of Destiny sort themselves out, and then engage in a slanging match with the other parties in the battle to avoid becoming fourth rather than third of the main parties in the next Dail.

In an open economy, prosperity depends crucially on credit ratings and international reputation -- and Ireland's is in tatters.

Foreign investors are unlikely to put their money in a country in which double-jobbing ministers are charged with keeping government ticking over while their minds are occupied by their own political survival.

The bailout from Europe and the IMF is predicated on a promise of firm government and the ability to carry public confidence in the measures necessary to get the public finances back in kilter over the next three or four years.

Any evidence of drift, of inability to deliver on these obligations would raise serious doubts in the market and among international funders.

The idea of separating the functions of Taoiseach and party leader in the present circumstances was dismissed as silly when advanced by Micheal Martin last week. It makes even less sense now that Brian Cowen has lost credibility and has been deserted by many of his followers in both roles.

Passing the Finance Bill to give effect to the Budget proposals was, we were told, an essential part of the bail-out arrangements with Europe and the IMF.

It was also presented as the reason why the Greens resiled from their demand for an election by the end of January. If a Finance Bill must be enacted, and if that is the only impediment to an early election, the answer would seem obvious even to the dimmest political intelligence with any regard for the national interest -- to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, a process the Greens pledged to assist even as they jumped ship.

There is little in the Finance Bill that Fine Gael would not themselves enact, and not much that Labour could not live with.

Now the parties have expressed willingness to fast-track the Bill with the hope, it can be assumed, of fine-tuning by amendments after the election, and even Sinn Fein are prepared to trade their doubts for the prospects of an early election.

The national interest would best be served by an all-party agreement to fast-track the Bill without amendments through the Houses and to the Aras (along with the seals of office of the remaining ministers) by the weekend.

By that time too, Fianna Fail would have elected a new leader in time for a short, sharp election campaign in which, hopefully, the emphasis could be placed on a prospectus for the future rather than recriminations about the past, and focus on policies rather than personalities. Otherwise there is a danger that an electorate, disillusioned by politics will simply switch off in despair.

For Fianna Fail, an election which, a week ago, was thought to be an exercise in damage limitation, has now been pitched as a struggle for survival, and the leadership even more of a poisoned chalice. Then the internal debate was whether to sack the skipper before the ship went on the rocks, or after the crash.

Few come out of the events of a week, which at times bordered on farce, with much political credit except Micheal Martin, for having the courage to bell the cat, and dignity under fire; and Barry Andrews, who not only showed commendable commitment to the task in hand, but sound political judgement in recognising a thoroughly bad idea when he saw one.

Indeed it is hard to see how anyone after a few minutes of consideration and a kindergarten knowledge of politics could imagine that the public in its present mood would swallow a mass reshuffle in the dying throes of a government.

In the event, Micheal Martin deservedly emerges as front runner for the vacancy that now exists.

Brian Lenihan damaged his prospects, perhaps fatally, by coming out as too clever by half, "willing to wound and yet afraid to strike", and Mary Hanafin, by not coming out at all, except in a sophistry that would have shamed a medieval Schoolman.

Eamon O Cuiv's leadership would only become relevant for a post-election rump Fianna Fail in a sort of De Valera theme park.

That an early election would see the end of the Climate Change Bill will gladden the hearts of the methane belching cattle, and the farmers of Ireland, now spared the cull, at a time when economic recovery is more than ever dependent on the export of meat and dairy products.

It is perhaps a sad metaphor for the state to which the nation has been reduced that salvation can only be achieved by tip-toeing to recovery through a spreading mass of cowpats.

Irish Independent