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300,000 empty homes show Cowen cannot erase sins of the past

At the Galway Races this week, there is a gaping hole where the infamous Fianna Fail tent used to be. Sadly, the damage caused by the Soldiers of Destiny's cosy relationship with the construction sector is still all too visible.

Just like last month's banking inquiries, the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) report is a damning verdict on how FF mishandled the property boom -- and most embarrassingly of all, every single one of their findings relates to when Brian Cowen was calling the shots as either Taoiseach or Minister for Finance.


The case for the prosecution could hardly be any clearer. We all know that the banks played their part in killing off the Celtic Tiger with a combination of reckless lending and crooked practices.

However, all the dodgy loans in the world would have made little difference if the Government hadn't jollied things along by providing generous tax incentives for anything that involved bricks and mortar, providing the crazy rezoning and planning permissions that have turned Ireland into a land of eerie ghost estates. Greedy speculators drew up their own development plans, FF handed them generous tax breaks -- and innocent house-buyers have been left to pick up a tab that will leave them trapped for the rest of their lives

In short, the report finds that "a litany of systemic failures" by Government ministers and local authorities led to the dramatic oversupply of housing that has made our recession one of the worst in the world.

Between 2002 and 2007, the FF-PD coalition led by Bertie Ahern ignored its own spatial strategy in favour of a disastrous decentralisation policy that was driven by purely short-term considerations. By an amazing coincidence, many of the property developers who benefited also happened to be major financial donors to FF -- with some of them now taking the opportunity to offload their debts onto NAMA.

None of NIRSA's charges is particularly new. Even so, seeing them laid down in black and white by independent experts is a painful reminder that Brian Cowen can never erase the sins of his past.

As he prepares to disappear for the month of August, the Taoiseach increasingly looks like a haunted man -- and as his apparent willingness to blow €100,000 of taxpayers' money on a High Court battle to delay the three outstanding by-elections suggests, he is desperate to avoid his day of reckoning with the electorate as far as possible.

For the Green Party, the political calculations are just as awkward. With John Gormley in the Department of Environment and Ciaran Cuffe as Minister for Planning, it is up to them to sort out the mess that their coalition partners left behind.

However, their perilously low opinion poll ratings have made them just as keen as FF to hold the Government together as long as possible.

If the Greens were still in opposition, they would be enthusiastically backing NIRSA's demand for a full-scale inquiry into every dubious planning decision made over the last decade.

Instead, they have refused to commit anything beyond Gormley's forthcoming probe into just six councils.


Once again, the country's long-term interests are being compromised by short-term politics -- only this time, the voters have clearly decided that they've had enough of being treated like sheep. The Galway tent may be gone, but the 300,000 empty houses around the country will stand as monuments to Brian Cowen's failure for decades to come. They are also a graphic reminder that whenever the next General Election finally arrives, FF will simply not be at the races.