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Coalition crisis: Rudderless

As Alex Ferguson likes to say whenever Manchester United get a dose of the jitters, it's squeaky bum time.

After a series of ministerial scandals, PR disasters and backbench mutterings -- all taking place against the constant backdrop of mass unemployment and dire economic forecasts -- 2010 is already shaping up to be another annus horribilis for Brian Cowen's beleaguered FF-Green coalition.

With a distinct lack of leadership coming from the top, there is now a growing feeling around Leinster House that the Government could be just one more crisis away from a total collapse.

On one level, of course, the soap opera surrounding the recent spate of resignations, from George Lee to Trevor Sargent, has been a distraction from the real problems facing the country.

However, it's also a symptom of the deep malaise that seems to have gripped the entire political system.

We've had unpopular governments in the past, but never one as despised as this one -- and to make matters worse, there's no evidence that the public has much faith in the alternative led by Enda Kenny either.

What exactly has gone wrong over the last few weeks? After all, last Christmas the conventional wisdom in political circles was that both the Government and the economy had turned a corner. With the NAMA bill, the Lisbon Treaty and the most feared budget in decades all successfully pushed through, the bookies slashed the odds on Cowen's coalition surviving all the way to 2012.


If any single development can be said to have changed the national mood since then, it was the devastating news that Brian Lenihan had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The Minister for Finance had clearly emerged as the Government's star player, his steady performance restoring a sense of calm at a time when it was badly needed.

Last weekend, John Bruton became the third ex-Fine Gael leader to acknowledge that the Minister is doing a good job -- a remarkable tribute to Lenihan's cross-party appeal and a stunning rebuke to the man who's after his position, Bruton's brother Richard.

Lenihan has been praised to the rafters (and rightly so) for the dignity with which he announced his illness and the courage he's shown by his decision to remain in office.

While it's still too early to predict exactly how this will affect his long-term career, however, it would be completely unrealistic to expect him to play as prominent or as public a role this year as he did in 2009.

The rumours that he might replace Brian Cowen in a leadership heave have quietly disappeared, to be replaced by speculation that a new economic ministry will be created in order to lighten his workload.

This might not matter very much if we had a Taoiseach who was prepared to lead from the front. Instead, Cowen's consistently lacklustre performance has confirmed all the worst fears of FF insiders (such as Bertie Ahern) who suspected that he never really wanted the job in the first place.

We still hear occasional reports of him making passionate and inspirational speeches to his troops behind closed doors, which makes it all the more galling that he never bothers to talk like that in front of the television cameras.

Cowen's lack of leadership and Lenihan's health issues have created a dangerous vacuum at the heart of the Government, one which has lately been filled by Cabinet ministers lapsing back into all their bad habits. This year alone we've had Noel Dempsey enjoying a sun holiday while the country endured sub-Arctic conditions, Mary Coughlan being humiliated in the war of words with Michael O'Leary over 300 potential jobs at Dublin Airport and Dermot Ahern getting more exercised over a media leak than the ongoing scourge of gangland murders.

At a time when the country urgently needs the most talented people possible in key positions, you get the distinct feeling that we're limping along with the B-team instead.

Only the most wide-eyed optimist could believe that the Taoiseach's upcoming reshuffle will radically alter this situation.

It seems likely that we will see two or three new faces around the Cabinet table, along with a reorganisation of government departments that will place more emphasis on economic issues.

Without an injection of new ideas as well, however, this will strike most of the public as window dressing only -- and all the usual jokes about deckchairs on the Titanic will apply as much as ever.

Whether or not Cowen's new team looks much the same as the old one, their agenda for the year ahead could hardly be any more daunting.

The process of recapitalising the banks will shortly begin, which in practice involves the Government shelling out €10-15bn to discredited institutions while at the same time pushing through a programme of severe public spending cuts.

With the public sector unions already on the warpath, it's hard to see how this can be achieved without provoking the kind of industrial unrest that's currently causing such havoc in Greece and other EU countries.


As for the relationship between FF and the Greens, that was summed up by Paul Gogarty's typically gracious remark last weekend that the politically wounded Willie O'Dea "needed to be shot in the head".

Their shared fear of what the voters might do to them in an early general election is currently keeping both parties glued together, but the Greens know that their only chance of long-term survival is to find an ethical issue that allows them to pull out of Government with their moral virtue intact.

That's why there is such trepidation within FF over two official documents due for publication within the next few weeks -- the Moriarty tribunal report that may have harsh things to say about the independent TD and Government supporter Michael Lowry, and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority report that ex-Green senator Deirdre de Burca has already predicted will be devastating for the reputation of the senior coalition partners.

Even if FF and the Greens can avoid a general election this year, they cannot hide from the public completely. A whole series of votes are scheduled for the autumn, including the Dublin mayoral election, by-elections in Dublin South and Donegal South West and possibly a referendum on children's rights. There is a real danger that each of these contests could turn into a mini-referendum on the Government's performance, with predictable consequences that would weaken their grip on power even further.

All this negativity may be a little depressing, but it's hard to be optimistic with over 400,000 people on the dole and at least two businesses going bust every day. In sporting terms, this Government is 3-0 down with the second half already underway and a team of players more fit for Scunthorpe United than Manchester United.

As things stand, they are falling apart in front of our eyes -- and with the result looking increasingly inevitable, the manager is highly unlikely to have his contract renewed.