OVER the last couple of weeks, the idea has got into the political air that Brian Lenihan has begun to get a grip on the crisis. So far, there is no tangible evidence one way or the other. We will know more on Tuesday, and a lot more when we see how international investors react.
In the meantime, let me hasten to assure you that this piece will not attempt yet another analysis of the economic and financial situation. Instead, I want to ask a hypothetical question.
Let's suppose that nobody had ever lashed out subprime mortgages in the United States and elsewhere. Let's suppose Lehman Brothers had never gone bankrupt. Let's suppose the global credit crunch had never occurred.
And let's suppose that in Ireland, the Ahern and Cowen governments had not staked everything on property-related taxes. Let's suppose that Taoiseach Ahern and Finance Minister Cowen had behaved with normal prudence, curbed "irrational exuberance" and contented themselves with an economic growth rate of 3 or 4 per cent, and thereby averted the crash.
In that hypothetical case, how would the Cowen government look now, with public attention concentrated on its non-financial and non-economic aspects?
The answer, I suggest, is that anyone who was not half-asleep or a dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fail supporter would have to regard it as absolutely awful.
In the first place, it started off by making an almighty hash of the Lisbon referendum campaign. As a result, our international reputation fell BEFORE the crash, not after.
Then came a series of incidents of which, weirdly, Picturegate was in its way the most important. Picturegate began as a mildly amusing prank. It ended (assuming that it has indeed ended) as a serious indictment of style of government and a horrible insight into certain mindsets. A grovelling apology was demanded of, and received from, the national broadcaster, which had done nothing wrong. The artist was visited by the Garda Siochana. And humourless people declared it a form of treason to mock the Taoiseach.
Ah! Treason! How often have we heard the word used to mean something the Fianna Fail Party doesn't like? Once it was treasonable to complain about malpractice in the beef industry. At another time, it was treasonable to doubt the wisdom of the construction and property boom. When they make up their minds what to do about the financial and economic crisis, no doubt it will be treasonable to object.
At one level, this kind of thing is harmless fun. At another, it shows the danger of leaving any party in office too long. Over the past 12 years, Fianna Fail have lost the run of themselves. Their pomposity has become unbearable.
So has their "sense of entitlement". They can see nothing wrong with their salaries, perks and pensions, with Bertie's belief that he should live in a White House or an Elysee Palace, with junior ministers crowding the Dail benches and pals packing State boards. At the extreme, they regard themselves -- and some have said this openly -- as the modern equivalent of the old Anglo-Irish ascendancy, entitled to all their privileges and able to behave just as badly.
It's easy to laugh at such absurdities, but the disease can be catching. It has certainly infected the Greens, as it infected the Progressive Democrats in their time.
It can also be serious. As always with pompous people, most of Fianna Fail are fundamentally insecure. One of Fianna Fail's most enduring characters is its intolerance of criticism. Which brings me to the Defamation Bill and the Privacy Bill. A rare phenomenon, something like spotting two comets in quick succession, occurred in the past few years. Instead of comets, we had two liberal justice ministers, Michael McDowell and Brian Lenihan. Both believed in free speech. Both were part of what amounted to a bargain between the establishment and the media. The media would guarantee good behaviour through a Press Council and a Press Ombudsman. In return, the government would legislate to curb some of the more oppressive features of the libel laws.
Bargains do not have to be written in blood or incised in stone. At any rate, the media honoured their side of this one. The Press Council and the Press Ombudsman have been operating successfully for the past year. The Government has not kept its part. The present justice minister, Dermot Ahern, has promised to proceed with the Defamation Bill, but he wants simultaneously to enact a privacy bill.
The Privacy Bill is unnecessary. There is ample protection of citizens' privacy rights in the existing laws. It will be interesting to hear what arguments are put forward in its favour. Let me guess. We will hear exaggerated stories of intrusions on privacy by the "red-top" tabloids. But where will the measure have its strongest effect? Answer: on RTE, because the Government hates investigative reporting, and especially investigative reporting on television.
And in various dusty corners, other odd things are happening -- not as insidious, but not part of the normal codocracy either. You can bet your life that in one of them, Fianna Fail strategists are already working out how to profit from a successful Budget next week.
In due course, they will trumpet the courage, intelligence and foresight with which Fianna Fail have met the crisis. The delays and mistakes of the last year will be wiped from history, or substituted with Fianna Fail's unique version, as enunciated by Charlie McCreevy. When all fruit fails, blame the Brits. That is how hollow the party, and the Government, have become.