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What the country needs is a clear plan of action

There are already too many opinion polls. This is the case at the best of times and we are not in the best of times, except for opinion polls. What happens is very clear. We ask a small but allegedly representative group of voters what they think, translate it into de-personalised percentages and then extrapolate the result into seats and the formation of governments.

This is followed by a lengthy debate designed to explain what it all means. This week, most of Thursday's chat programmes on RTE were in pursuit of the poll published that morning. Details were teased out endlessly and repeatedly. Interspersed were vox pop expansions of the opinion polls. This resulted in a political quagmire of questions and answers about what would happen if the poll were repeated in the election itself.

Since there was no agreement at all about this central question and precious little agreement about what was being discovered on doorsteps by radio and television teams, it became obvious that another opinion poll would have to be held as quickly as possible to clear up the doubt. This weekend or early next week, one of the appropriate polling organisations, handsomely rewarded by the client, will oblige.

This is making a nonsense of any serious coverage of the election, or analysis of differences between the parties as they respond to public disquiet and anxiety.

Top of the list this week have been the bailout and the blanket bank guarantee and what the parties will do about it, or what they will be able to do about it. The two parties that are likely to form the next government and are preferable to any other option, are seriously compromised in how they address this issue.

They are compromised in the following ways. Both Fine Gael and Labour are pro-European integration to an unacceptable degree and have not created a sufficiently aggressive attitude to the problems faced by the euro, the dishonest handling of this by the European Central Bank and the Commission, the justified rage of Germany at Ireland's misgovernment under Fianna Fail during the crisis and the absurdly punitive view of us taken by José Manuel Barroso. In this turmoil, it is fairly clear that Enda Kenny is out of his depth, that Michael Noonan is struggling a) to understand what he should do, b) to cover for his leader and c) to choose the weakest point in Europe's unfairly wooden approach to us.

Much the same may be said of Joan Burton, who is more clued in and less mesmerised by the EU, and Eamon Gilmore, whose resorting to soundbites and instant solutions is becoming distressful.

What is additionally troubling is the obvious appeal of Sinn Fein, whose position is simplistic and confrontational, paying little heed to the need to negotiate with skill and subtlety, simply declaring that it will reject the bailout and the blanket bank guarantee, the latter creating the former, which would not otherwise have been necessary.

The position of Fianna Fail borders on the absurd. If Micheal Martin's apology, given when he was elected leader of Fianna Fail, has any meaning at all, then it should be geared to supporting all the other political parties, without exception, on this issue of the bank bailout. Instead, Fianna Fail is sticking with the bailout as negotiated by them and treating it as a done deal, set in stone. That is not how it is.

What Martin actually said was: "I am sorry for the mistakes we made as a party and for the mistakes I made". The biggest mistake was the mess they made of the bank bailout, including a ridiculous handling of the banks, a matter still not properly resolved. So he should have added to his apology, the following: "But we are sticking with our mistakes and we stand over them". That is precisely his position this week. He claimed that the bailout package could not be altered and he mocked the two main parties in particular for their differences over how they would handle a very difficult but central issue facing Ireland.

The central issue is not the bailout as such, which has to be handled with delicacy and finesse, but the fixing of the banks that have so catastrophically contributed to Ireland's insolvency. The banks are the oxygen of public and private life and the State cannot keep asking the taxpayer to cough up tens of billions to keep them going.

They have to be stabilised. Nationalising them has not achieved this. Deposits are still flowing out and there is a horrendous level of bad debts. We cannot do without Europe in putting this situation right and Europe itself will be put at risk if we default.

No amount of apologising on behalf of Fianna Fail can remove the fact that they got us into this by their ineptitude in 2007/2008 and behind the apology there is no new thinking.

Enda Kenny is right to play a cool hand in respect of debate with a party that has no contribution to make and will use the opportunity simply to be negative. He is right also to rely on those around him, probably Richard Bruton more than Noonan, though the level of dependency goes outside Fine Gael on its own and requires a better level of reconciliation between the main opposition parties, with, if possible, less of the instant and bombastic identification of solutions from Gilmore and more of the teasing out of what is possible by Burton.

We are still reaping the whirlwind of trusting Europe too much. This was an all-party position. Unfortunately, it was handled by Fianna Fail in power who thought it was enough to turn to Europe without stringent regulation and control of a banking system that had gone feral. We are in no position to block the Europeanisation of Ireland's continuing exposure to the banks and the European Central Bank's exposure to our hopeless level of bank debt.

It is probably worse than that since the European Central Bank appears to be running out of cash and will need capitalisation from euro countries, to which Ireland will not be able to contribute, making us even more of a pariah. This will reinforce our victim status in Europe.

In spite of all this, there is recognition in Brussels that some sort of haircut for the senior bondholders is inevitable. Emphasis on this is already a sensible part of Bruton's contribution to the way forward and it would be wiser if Fianna Fail was to back that approach, turning its apology into an actual plan of action. This would be better, along with other sensible and modest moves for change, than siding with the intransigent attitude of the EU negotiators of the bailout -- what a funny word to use for them! -- who insist that Ireland will have to pay back every penny. Ireland, rightly, will not accept that approach.

It is too early in this election to do other than grapple with the main issues. But central to the economic crisis is the as-yet-unresolved bank indebtedness. On that, a common approach is needed. That is the reduced measure of what our sovereignty -- so stupidly squandered in recent years -- means today.

Irish Independent