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Andrew Lynch: TDs face leadership and Budget battles as Dail break is over

THEY probably didn't need it but politicians returning to the Dail today were given a stark reminder of what is troubling the electorate.

A 12-tonne truck emblazoned with anti-Anglo slogans embedded in the Kildare Street gates was a crude but effective symbol of the public's fury.

And it was laid in front of them as they head into what must surely be one of the mostdifficult Dail sessions any of them have ever had to face.

In case they're not alread y clear, here are the five biggest challenges facing the Government as it struggles to keep the show on the road until 2011.

1 Pass a budget. Brian Lenihan has really put the cat among the pigeons by hinting that he will have to reduce our gaping budget deficit by more than the previously agreed figure of €3bn this year.


While this is hardly surprising given that the international markets have hiked up the interest rates on our borrowing, it's impossible to plunge the knife in that deeply without spilling a huge amount of blood.

Forget the debate over whether the money should primarily come from tax hikes or spending cuts -- to reach that magic figure, Lenihan will have to do plenty of both. The lower paid will be brought into the tax net, health and social welfare budgets will be slashed and there are likely to a few nasty surprises in the overall package. It will all add up to a grim December -- and if it isn't properly checked in advance for potential banana skins, there's no guarantee it'll be passed.

2 Sort out the banks. Exactly two years after the banking guarantee, the Government still can't put a precise figure on the ultimate cost to the taxpayer. The recent announcement that Anglo Irish will be split into two did nothing to reassure the public, for the simple reason that even cabinet ministers have struggled to explain how it's supposed to actually work.

The Taoiseach promises all will be revealed in the coming weeks -- and that's a promise he needs to keep if he wants to stop these financial institutions from bleeding the country dry.

3 Resolve the leadership issue. The panic over Garglegate may have died down, but Jay Leno's "drunken moron" jibe showed that the damage done to Brian Cowen's image has spread far beyond these shores.

While the Taoiseach has been making a supreme effort since then to smile more and talk in plain English, he is probably just one more gaffe away from a serious leadership heave.


At some point, FF TDs must decide to either back him or sack him with a minimum of fuss -- because right now, their biggest asset is that Enda Kenny is doing his best to make their own leader look good.

4 Keep the Greens on board. FF have treated their coalition partners like an annoying pet that can usually be ignored but needs to be thrown a bone once in a while.

Now it's feeding time again, as John Gormley presses ahead with his plan for a directly elected Dublin mayor that has convinced nobody except himself. But the real crunch could come when Greens demand a ban on political corporate donations -- because while that would be financially suicidal for FF, refusing it will give Gormley a perfect excuse to bring down the Government on a point of principle.

5Watch out for accidents. Above all, Cowen's biggest challenge is to preserve his Dail majority at a time when many backbenchers are wondering if jumping ship would help them save their seats.

In the last week alone, a couple of Independents have warned their support can't be taken for granted while FF TDs have complained about health cutbacks in their own constituencies. The Government will buy some time by postponing the three by-elections until spring, but it's a fragile situation and even a small gust of wind could bring the house of cards crashing down.

Brian Cowen may not be the greatest Taoiseach in history, but he has shown certain survival powers. The coming Dail term will test those powers to the limit.