Bruce Arnold

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

Cowen is now nothing but an embarrassment

Brian Cowen has lost the confidence of the Fianna Fail party and its organisation throughout the country. This completes the circle of disapproval, making it clear that he has lost the confidence of the country. Other political parties have long since lost confidence in him.

In these circumstances, he should be sent to the Park to ask the President to accept his resignation, dissolve the Dail and call an immediate general election. On his resignation, the other members of the Government, according to Article 28.11.1 will be deemed also to have resigned their office and from then on will continue to carry on their duties only until successors have been appointed.

We have never had circumstances where this situation is being so flagrantly flouted by the present incumbent, whose acts in the past seven days have clearly established that he knows and accepts he has lost the confidence of his own party but is determined to go on by-passing this. In losing that confidence, he lost the confidence generally of the Irish people.

It is playing with words to pretend there are different levels of confidence -- in his party, in the Dail, in the country -- and to invent a separate set of circumstances where he can go blithely on being Taoiseach and wielding the Taoiseach's powers, into an as yet ill-defined future. This is a nonsense, and a travesty of the framework for parliamentary action and the power to rule as contained in the Constitution.

Nevertheless, Brian Cowen has chosen to take that route. The matter will not be resolved by debate or discussion. Throughout his career, Brian Cowen has shown a decided reluctance to have alternative courses of action put to him against his own perceived political objectives. It is therefore in Parliament that the matter needs to be sorted out. And this can only be done by the sensible course of a vote of 'no confidence' in the Dail.

For FF not to support or accept the inevitability of this course of action is tantamount to flouting its most fundamental duties to the country. It has to let such a vote go through. And the clear consequences are the dissolution of the Dail.

The Fianna Fail party is already trammelled up in the absurdity of choosing the present situation surrounding Cowen. This is that of its members having a new leader of their organisation in whom they will pledge trust on Wednesday, while at the same time they take orders and direction from Cowen, who has elected himself to continue as leader of the Government.

The party heard Cowen outline this unconstitutional division of power and confidence on Saturday, and no one spoke out against it.

But then the party, led by senior ministers who were resigning after a lifetime's experience, had gone through the fiasco, two days earlier, of thinking Cowen could juggle with ministerial appointments like a stage magician who has lost control of his rabbits.

Over the weekend, they went with set faces and with no shadow of doubt in their hearts through the continuing and deepening political wonderland. They fully believe that they can play through the restructuring of the leadership of the Fianna Fail Party leaving in place a leader of the country who will govern their actions -- and they will follow him -- until the actual election takes place.

In all material and logical ways, Article 28.10 of the Constitution has become a reality. It states: "The Taoiseach shall resign from office upon his ceasing to retain the support of a majority in Dail Eireann."

Brian Cowen has ceased to retain the support of all but a handful in the Dail and the reasons are entirely related to his performance of the office of Taoiseach. It has not been done on personal grounds, or moral grounds, or because he is known to take a few drinks too many. It is because he has lost confidence in the performance of his political duties.

Keeping up the pretence of there being serious distinction here between party leader and Taoiseach will offend the people outside Fianna Fail and will damage the Fianna Fail party before the electorate.

Cowen has been treated harshly in recent days, but only in recent days. From the time he became Taoiseach, by acclamation, in May 2008, he has been favoured. The scrutiny of his mistakes has been pursued by only a small group of journalists. RTE, in my opinion, has shown heavy bias in his favour and was outrageously pro a 'Yes' vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendums.

As to his career more generally, he has been favoured above the level his talent deserved. He was not an early success in politics, though he did start at the early age of 24. He was always deliberately and unwisely vehement in his views.

He opposed Haughey over the necessary partnership with the Progressive Democrats in 1989. He lost out as a result. At a Fianna Fail ard fheis in 1992 Cowen gave the warm-up speech and went very public when he asked the rhetorical question: 'What about the PDs?' He added the smart answer, 'When in doubt, leave them out'. He made this situation worse by backing Albert Reynolds in the first, unsuccessful heave against Haughey.

He was happy to be on the 'Country and Western' wing of the party. It did him little good. He was intolerant of partnership. He dismissed, right into this year, consensus politics. He can be forgiven a taste for raucous songs but not the heavy imbibing of alcohol.

Cowen as a minister was a modest performer. Ahern favoured him and, when he got rid of McCreevy, he put Cowen into Finance. The jury is out on how he performed, but we all know there are questions not answered about the later stages of Cowen handling the banks.

He was unlucky in having to preside over the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Sadly, he did not preside very well. Both he and Brian Lenihan were out of their depth for most of the period 2008 up to the present.

It is Cowen who had overall responsibility and his legacy is permanently damaged by what he failed to do, what he did wrong and the lack of openness and transparency to which he resorted as a cover-up.

Cowen's espousal of reform failed from the the beginning of his incumbency. The country was governed by an expensive array of 'quango-like' organisations duplicating the work of the establishment, and by ministerial advisers who further duplicated the State's officials.

In comparison with predecessors, this gruff and grumpy person, contentious in argument, iconoclastic and confrontational, was doomed to fare poorly. He has proved neither attractive nor appealing. He has never sought to be. He expects to be taken as he is, without frills or posturing.

He did not develop the philosophic intensity of Eamon de Valera, the sanguine pragmatism of Lemass, the good judgement of Jack Lynch, the dark hypnotic magic that Haughey exercised, keeping him in control of the party for 12 years.

He did not have Bertie Ahern's political indestructibility -- until he too fell from grace. Cowen's end is even more ignominious. He has become nothing else but an embarrassment.

The State's dilemma over the present stage of the current crisis boils down to one simple set of actions, the constitutional termination of this Dail by voting no confidence in the Taoiseach.