Cowen has no time to waste
FIANNA Fail is in shock this weekend. The once-dominant political party in this State has tumbled so far in the people's estimation that it now lags behind the Labour Party and Fine Gael in the latest opinion polls. Even worse than the figures for Fianna Fail are the figures for the coalition government that it leads: a meagre 14 per cent of the people are satisfied with its performance. The Government has disconnected from the people it governs at an alarming and unprecedented rate.
It is true, of course, that any government faced with the current economic crisis would struggle to maintain its popularity, but disaffection with this Government has been fuelled by its failure to act with urgency or decisiveness.
Throughout the summer months of 2008, Brian Cowen and his cabinet ministers refused to accept the evidence of economic decay that was accumulating under their noses and pretended that the 'economic fundamentals were sound'.
They were not -- they were crumbling. Those lost months were compounded by the Government's decision to agree a national wage deal with the trade unions which blithely ignored economic reality and proposed increasing the public sector wage bill by 6 per cent over two years.
Finally, belatedly, the Government has come to its senses, but its leadership has been so supine that it has failed to take the people with it. Now, precisely at the point where it needs popular support to face down the capricious demands of the trade union movement, it has none. Worse, a majority of the people actually believe that the Government is wrong to cut current spending by imposing a pensions levy on public sector workers, and a majority believes that the Government was wrong to press ahead with that levy without the support of the social partners.
Those opinion poll results will strengthen the resolve of the trade union movement to challenge the Government. If they are allowed to succeed the economic consequences will be devastating.
We must be under no illusions: if this Government fails to cut current spending by at least €2bn this year, and by twice that amount next year, the international markets will punish Ireland severely. The risk of this country actually defaulting on its debt obligations may be remote, but the cost of borrowing will rise and rise if we fail to curb our spending.
The Government must discover a sense of urgency. This recession threatens to become a depression and already the human cost of our economic downturn is appalling. This is a war, not a temporary little difficulty, and it needs to be fought with passion and determination.
The Government has clearly failed to convince the people that it is competent to lead the country through this crisis but, unless Fianna Fail's coalition partners in the Green Party lose their nerve, the government has another three years in charge. It must seize the moment and offer real leadership and real direction, and it must fight to regain the people's confidence.
Honesty, passion and urgency must be its weapons. Brian Cowen needs to lay out his plans for economic recovery, showing why spending must be cut and how his plan will guide the economy back to recovery. He must be passionate and confident, and he must be prepared to fight off any vested interest that stands in his way.
Urgency demands that he tackles public sector reform now, not in six months; that he hurries the Commission on Taxation to produce its report in two months, not six; that he reviews capital spending programmes immediately and cuts those that do not offer an economic return or enhanced competitiveness.
The Government cannot control the global economy, or bring the global recession to an end, but it can and must do everything in its power to make this economy as lean and competitive as is possible, so that when the recovery comes Ireland is best positioned to take advantage. There is no more time to waste, Mr Cowen.