Dan White: Cowen now needs to step back and let Lenihan sort it out

Dan White

DISCUSSIONS between our Government and European bodies over a bailout are due to take place over the coming days and are likely to be the most important since the 1921 Treaty negotiations. Will they finally get it right or will we make a mess of things yet again?

Q: The IMF, the ECB and the EU are all in town. Do we play hardball?

A: We need to handle this one very carefully. Clearly there is no point in lying down and letting the men from the IMF and the eurocrats tickle our tummy. While we have very definite goals, the chief one being that any extra cost of bailing out the banks doesn't fall on the tax-payer, the blunt truth is that our bargaining position is weak. With the bond markets now effectively closed to both the Irish Government and the banks it's literally the IMF, ECB and EU or bust.

Q: Is the visit a threat or an opportunity for us?

A: That depends on how we play it. Quite clearly our current policy, which seems to amount to insisting that we don't need a bailout, isn't credible. While the Government is funded up to the middle of next year, it's a different story for the banks, to which the Government is joined at the hip courtesy of the 2008 deposit guarantee.

The challenge facing Brian Lenihan in the discussions is to begin to disentangle the debts of the Irish government from the liabilities of the banking system. If he can succeed in doing so then we will have taken our first step towards economic recovery.

Q: Some are comparing the discussions with the men from Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington to the talks that preceded the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. Will Brian Lenihan meet the challenge?

A: Ever since the Irish banking crisis first erupted in September 2008 Brian Lenihan has been by far the most impressive performer on the Government benches. He has, almost incredibly, managed to retain his popularity while the Government of which he is a member is almost universally loathed.

People have responded positively to his straight-talking and the bravery he has shown in dealing with a life-threatening illness. Of course it isn't very difficult to be the star performer in a Government of which the other leading members are Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Tanaiste Mary Coughlan.

Q: So will Brian Lenihan be our Michael Collins?

A: Hang on a minute, don't get carried away. A large part of Brian Lenihan's popularity is due to his ability to explain our predicament in clear, concise terms that everyone can understand. It also helps that he only joined the cabinet for the first time in 2007 so he bears no responsibility for creating the mess he is now trying to clean up. However, even a good barrister, which Lenihan clearly is, can't make a bad case good, no matter how well he argues it.

Q: So if Lenihan isn't Michael Collins, who might possibly end up playing the role of Eamon De Valera?

A: Ever since he was first appointed Finance Minister in May 2008 there have been reports of friction between Lenihan and Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Whatever his failings, of which agreeing to the September 2008 deposit guarantee must surely be the most serious, Lenihan has at least displayed a determination to tackle our problems, regardless of the political cost to Fianna Fail.

By comparison, Cowen has resembled nothing so much as a dog in a manger, anxious to put off politically-awkward decisions, of which his apparent refusal to accept a bailout is merely the latest example.

Will Cowen end up sabotaging any bailout agreed by Lenihan in the hope that the blame can be transferred to a new Government instead? That's the question.