Bruce Arnold

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

Master of contempt Cowen leaves chaos in his wake

Brian Cowen is a master of contempt. In the last 24 hours he has completed the circle of that contempt to include the whole compass of political life in this country, leaving behind him a trail of chaos and constitutional debris.

His form of contempt is blunt, gross and brutal. He claims, quite wrongly, that he and his party are on the right track and will implement recovery and progress. Not under him will they do this. They are too contemptuous of the way it should be done.

He has abused the State and its institutions. He has turned the Constitution on its head. He has undermined the role and function of the Dail on a consistent basis, making nonsense of important legislation by the contemptuous use of the guillotine and by creating -- for the first time, in the recent Act regulating the banks -- laws that within days were operated covertly and without proper public scrutiny.

He has tried to manipulate the basis on which cabinet government works in this country, reaching the edge of a further democratic abyss last night, only to be pulled back by the Greens.

That he could conceive of a political stroke such as he contemplated is grossly contemptuous. It was offered to him by departing ministers, whose duty was to remain during the last weeks of office, but whose actions were to flee the sinking ship and facilitate their leader.

He favoured their block departure in a strategy which he would use to advance the fortunes of candidates in the General Election.

This was to treat with ignorant abuse the departments that could not possibly be taken over by new ministers without bringing much of departmental work and of ministerial decision-making to a halt, or worse still, leading to acts of foolishness and ignorance.

This democratic process itself has been gravely damaged by Fianna Fail in office. The party has created a two-tier and in some cases a three-tier mechanism for the administration of the State. This includes the public and civil service; the private political advisers to ministers; and the semi-state bodies that operate often outside the control of the legislature.

Brian Cowen pledged himself to reform this. He did no such thing. He has used structures that were carefully developed to allow greater patronage, at far greater public expense, for party supporters.

We have seen the first wave of pre-election appointments under this system, without either due process or logic, and we will see many more before this abhorrent administration loses power. There is public dismay about it and, to the Opposition's credit, a determination to reverse as many appointments as can possibly be reversed. My own hope is that this will be done with the utmost stringency and determination.

All of this covers a contempt for prudence and proper state administration that has become endemic and insidious.

The Taoiseach engaged, earlier in the week, in a truly bizarre distortion of the principle behind the secret ballot, using a party device not only to conceal the measure of support for and opposition to himself but also to destroy the evidence by shredding the ballot papers.

It took centuries of painful campaigning, from ancient Greece to seventeenth-century England, to establish the right to make judgments privately and then see the result publicly defined, giving conclusion and finality.

True, Fine Gael did the same during its leadership battle last year. But in both cases these were acts that were contemptuous of democracy, denying any healthy recognition that power is held at the will of the people -- in this case the membership of the political parties, where the members have a right to differ.

There is very little that Brian Cowen has touched during his time as Taoiseach, and before that in the Department of Finance, that is free from a kind of deliberate confusion of democratic requirements by the dual consideration of the true needs of the State and the ever-growing impingement upon those needs by the Fianna Fail Party and its supporters. This approach was contemptuous.

One example under current scrutiny concerns the Anglo Irish Bank and Brian Cowen's inability to give us the full truth about his contacts with senior executives, major shareholders, board members, his own Department of Finance and the minister he appointed to replace himself. This showed contempt for both transparency and truth.

I lived through the devious undermining of Jack Lynch by Charles Haughey, first over the attempted importation of arms to pass to republican militants in Northern Ireland and then during the period of opposition when Liam Cosgrave and Brendan Corish made a fair stab at government that was not corrupt.

I thought then that politics plumbed unmeasured depths of deceit and disloyalty and that Charles Haughey and his close group of subordinates operated politics for the sake of themselves first, the Fianna Fail party second and the country a distant third. This was contemptuous of the people and the State.

It was worse than that, however. It bred a virus within Fianna Fail that has become increasingly toxic, so that the party gave birth to members like Liam Lawlor and Raphael Burke, together with the corruption of public servants like Frank Dunlop -- and all this as a matter of accepted venality.

Brian Cowen came to power claiming that he would reform the political system. Instead, the system his party had moulded deviously out of a far better one that existed under its founding figures imprisoned him and undermined the good in him.

He simply did not have the capacity for changing what he found. Furthermore, in his own way, he was a product of that system, his first and only real loyalty being to the party.

In the last week or so, Brian Cowen's contemptuous treatment of us all has marked and defined the radical rejection and political annihilation that Fianna Fail now deserves.

Democracy can be rescued. Party politics can be revived and strengthened. As well as living through the Lemass-Lynch era, the Haughey period of largely personal rule and the many sad years that followed, I was a first-hand witness of the period in which Liam Cosgrave and Brendan Corish managed a difficult political and economic brief, including entry into Europe and some of the worst Sinn Fein-IRA atrocities of the Troubles.

I was a stern critic of that coalition. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, I could not fault it for the things that Haughey visited upon this country, nor for the political favouritism that later became endemic and has been part of Brian Cowen's contemptuous treatment of our democracy and of us. It reached levels of absurdity in the last 24 hours that would have made it laughable, had it not also been so savage a blow at the standards that once prevailed in this country's political life.