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John Drennan: Tattered Taoiseach is but a paltry thing

WHEN they finally served the separation papers on the lethal embrace of social partnership, you might have expected the Government to at least look relieved.

Instead on Friday, Cowen, Coughlan and Lenihan delivered this news with all of the vigour of a panel of apprentice undertakers.

As a breathless Cowen said "our priority is to stabilise the public finances" -- a full year after we were told this was the priority of 2008 -- a Taoiseach just about standing in a crumpled heap looked like the equivalent of the political undead.

Rather like Yeats's famous lines about how "an aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick", the cruel truth of things are that a Taoiseach who has lost his authority is a fairly tattered looking creature too.

Last week, however, as his most loyal supporters hung their heads and Opposition backbenchers openly laughed at the latest misadventures of the curious ostrich we have the misfortune to be ruled by, it was clear Mr Cowen was at the edges of the political wilderness.

It was bad enough that for most of last week it looked as though the trade unions, rather than the Government, were running the country.

However, the FF 'revolt' against the apparent plan to reform our inefficient public sector, by giving its workers even more time off, painted a galling portrait of a Taoiseach who is so incapable of ruling the country his spine has to be stiffened by his own back-bench TDs.

We are in trouble indeed if the saving of the country must now be left to the backwoodsmen of this world.

As we flirted with the incredible scenario, where next week's Budget would be the first in the history of the State to collapse before the Minister even made his speech, we even got a glimpse into the precariousness of Cowen's own position.

By Friday the political waters may have been calm, but for a time last week even loyal FF TDs were openly saying that if Brian Lenihan threatened to resign over the Civil Service paid leave proposal a posse of TDs would inform the Taoiseach that it might be a good idea for him to take a little rest.

The Ireland Cowen and FF have created is a failed political entity. We are a state which is morally, politically intellectually and economically bankrupt.

Cowen and the trade union panjandrums can talk all they want about the reform of the public sector but unless the world economy rescues us we will have to destroy our education, justice and health systems to balance the books.

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In some rare moments of passion, Cowen sometimes claims the entire progress of the last two decades in this country was not illusory.

However, when it comes to our failed political entity, the books show our wealth was as transient as the dreamlike world of the Great Gatsby.

Such has been the collapse of the economy Biffo helped to build we cannot even tax ourselves back to fiscal sanity.

It may well be self evident that the current tax take of €32bn is not sustainable, but the problem with raising further revenue is that there is nothing there to tax -- the economic captains and the kings, the banks and sizeable numbers of those of us who are 'lucky' enough to be working are bust.

Amid all of this chaos we are being misgoverned by every wing of government.

Other civilised states may believe in the concept of moral hazard, but when it comes to our Titanic, the great toxic troika of Fianna Fail politicians, trade unions and the higher caste of Civil Service mandarins who have misgoverned the country to the point of insolvency had, up to last Friday, not lost a single man.

As our economy increasingly resembles that of Weimar Germany and, as the private and public sector mutter about how each is stabbing the other in the back, the only thing stopping the rise of some distorted variant of fascism is the utterly demoralised mood of the people, and the attenuated state of Sinn Fein.

And then, amid all of this, we have a Taoiseach who when he is confronted by agonised householders at their flooded houses tells them he has to go or he'll be late for a Cabinet meeting.

At moments like that you might be tempted to think someone should really tell this guy he's actually in charge of the country.

The problem, however, is that there would be absolutely no point in saying this to the sort of fool who wears shoes when visiting a flood.

The bad news for us is that Cowen's most critical 'flaw' is that he is not a natural leader of men. This means that when it comes to the economy or the Vatican his instinctive response is flight rather than fight.

There are real consequences for all of us when we are led by a Taoiseach who doesn't have the bottle to do what he knows must be done.

At a time where we need focused leadership Ireland is being governed by a dithering, nervous, indecisive Cabinet, whose endemic incompetence has already spooked the country and may yet spook the world's bond markets.

As we edge towards the status of being a colony of the IMF, the new toxic duo of Civil Service mandarins and Fianna Fail ministers may believe they are as snug as bugs in a rug on Cowen's watch.

The rest of us, however, can only hope that the endemic political cowardice of our failed Taoiseach will not lead our failed state into an economic wilderness.