Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Cabinet and Opposition must unite to salvage the economy

Brian Cowen's retreat into the comfort zone of the social partnership in order to solve the key issue of wages and address the economic crisis facing the country is a denial of democracy. The law and the Constitution require that he govern through the houses of the Oireachtas. It is where, in the end, our whole future will be worked out; it must be worked out there, and the sooner those who govern us adjust to this the better.

The overriding characteristic of the administrations of the past decade, led by Bertie Ahern and now Brian Cowen, has been the drift away from parliamentary democracy to government by elites, by partnerships between the State and vested interests -- not just the social partners, but builders and developers, bankers, the Church -- at the expense of a democratic system fashioned, at times with scrupulous care, by their predecessors.

To the frustration of Fine Gael and Labour -- in opposition for too long and outsmarted by a slicker political operation by Bertie Ahern, who enjoyed the luck of cash flow -- they saw the bedrock of Irish democracy turned increasingly into a powerless talking shop. Brian Cowen's only real claim to attention, when he became leader, was his promise to reform the public service, which, in its broadest conception, embraces how the country is run and how those we elect govern us.

Within weeks, he fell; first over the Lisbon referendum, which was primarily fought over the issue of democracy's crisis in Europe, and then over almost everything else that he attempted to tackle.
At no stage has he brought before the Dail for debate and collective consideration proposals to deal with issues, whether public service-related, or designed to deal with private sector collapses of confidence.

Correctly, the opposition has sought involvement in the crisis and its solution. One dimension of this, coming from Alan Dukes, a former leader of Fine Gael, was when he recently proposed a new version of the Tallaght Strategy.

This was originally proposed in September 1987 after Garret FitzGerald resigned, having lost the election earlier that year. Alan Dukes succeeded him. Charles Haughey's return to power, without a majority, made people fearful of a return also to the undisciplined policies he had pursued from 1979 to 1981, and again during the dismal 1982 administration.

Alan Dukes made a speech in Tallaght on September 2 1987 in which he simply said: 'When the Government is moving in the right direction, I will not oppose the central thrust of its policy. If it is going in the right direction, I do not believe that it should be deviated from its course, or tripped up on macro-economic issues.' It was a significant and refreshing departure from the deep divisions in the operation of democracy in this country, significantly reinforced by the performance in power of Haughey and those around him. It worked well in certain respects and Alan Dukes and the Fine Gael party believed that this political cooperation between opposition and government laid the foundations for the economic boom that was the Celtic Tiger.

It is questionable whether a parallel approach is appropriate in present circumstances. We are dealing with a wholly different set of circumstances, everything turned around and facing in a direction the opposite of what Dukes and Haughey and MacSharry and others saw before them 20 years ago.
But the Dail has now largely become a useless sideshow and the decisions on the country's future are being made behind closed doors.

Brian Cowen proposes to struggle with workers, as partners, trying to persuade them to take what clearly has to be a fairly massive reduction in their pay. This is to resort to private, undemocratic persuasion, in place of open, democratic decision-making, which is what he was elected for.
He avoids letting himself be contaminated, either by reform or by the consensus that would emerge if he brought about the more effective use of the democratic system we fought so long for, and shaped so arduously.

The desirability of working within the Dail is reinforced by the considerable contribution that has emerged from the parties in opposition, their clear willingness to be involved in the solution of the crisis, and the absurdity of half the elected representatives, who should be part of what governs us, pursuing a role as critics on the sidelines.

This absurdity is further reinforced by the dismal and pathetic performances of Brian Cowen himself, Brian Lenihan, Mary Coughlan and others. Even the relatively minor crisis in Cork, with Bishop Magee fighting for survival against an overwhelming case against his judgment, care and probity over child sexual abuse, has revealed the minister involved, Barry Andrews, as seriously uncertain about what to do.

Enda Kenny was right when he said, in an interview last September, that although he was ready to pledge his party to 'work in the interest of the economy and the people', he did not think the Tallaght Strategy was the way. The strategy, it must be said, did not benefit Fine Gael at the time, nor did it do so later, in 1989, when Haughey, in a stupid decision to dissolve and go to the country, lost seats, having been previously helped by the main opposition party whom he then betrayed. Similar caution -- particularly when power is shared -- is a necessary part of any dealings with Fianna Fail. This may be part of the reason for Kenny's caution and the fact that, post the Tallaght Strategy, Alan Dukes lost his influence and his leadership of Fine Gael.

But co-operation, not just between Fine Gael and the Government, but involving Labour as well, looks increasingly sensible, as those in power continue to demonstrate that they do not know what to do, nor how to do it. And those out of power inspire growing levels of public confidence combined with frustration that the electorate did not favour them at the last election, when it really mattered.