Bruce Arnold

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

It's undeniable: Cowen is a big failure as Taoiseach

BRIAN Cowen received a sympathetic and encouraging start when he became Taoiseach last May.

He had the unanimous support of the Fianna Fail Party and organisation. The press gave him an almost ecstatic welcome, parading his supposed merits and strengths and seeing him as head-and-shoulders over any possible rivals. I differed from this, lamenting the fact that there had not been a leadership contest -- always of value in defining a political party's future -- and questioning the poisoned chalice offered by his predecessor.

I questioned what I saw as far too extravagant praise for a career of no great distinction or achievement, as well as a period in the Department of Finance that had not looked sufficiently to the future. He had warned about looming clouds over the economy in 2006, but had done nothing.

Then came the setbacks. He failed over the Lisbon Treaty, and ran a poor, misconceived campaign which he thought would be a walkover. In this he displayed seriously bad judgment. He then compounded this lack of leadership. The first thing he did was to blame others, even during the campaign. He did this notably to Fine Gael, for not pulling their weight, and to Labour for not being united enough.

He brought forward the Budget in a quite dramatic way and then fell on his face, making a massive mess of the things that had been decided -- one wonders how involved the Government really were in this, and who in fact called the shots, Lenihan or Cowen, or no one? It turned out to have been a foolish piece of false energy and determination.

It was tied up with three other issues, so that the sense of his inadequacy spread like sickness among the public generally, as well as within the public service. These issues were, firstly, the absurdity of a social partnership still trying to organise public pay, involving increases, when the country was in a state of near panic over the economic and banking crisis. We needed to bring public pay back into the Oireachtas where it could be reduced.

Secondly, there was the crucial issue of public service reform, the outline of which should have preceded the Budget, letting its broad objectives be shaped within that Budget's strategy. As it happened, this did not matter, and would not have happened anyway, since the Reform Package was such a dismally unoriginal set of flaccid ideas which Cowen promptly, and stupidly, consigned to a committee. This is a group of very senior figures. Their tried and tested safety has shown up, more than anything else, that we have no new minds working in this vital area. They will report next summer. The Government, after the summer break, will think about the proposals, and at the very least a further year will be lost.

Thirdly and separately there was the outrageous fact that we have created up to 800 hived-off State enterprises, costing massively more money than their work would have cost if contained within the conventional civil and public service framework, and we need to re-absorb them and save hundreds of millions by so doing.

This needed urgent attention backed by legislation. Little did I know, when I wrote of it in general terms, last week, that it would blast its way on to the front pages with the FAS scandal.

Even less could I have predicted what a complete mess of it Brian Cowen would make, supporting the FAS CEO whose resignation he should have sought immediately. If that is how he handles a scandal, what hope is there of him addressing straightforward but necessary reform. The awful reality is that Brian Cowen is no leader. He doesn't just lack leadership potential; he lacks all the essentials of leadership.

From personal experience I can cite, from the leaders we have had, over the past half-century, those who have been better. With the possible exception of Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds, all others qualify.

Leaders need courage, consistency, determination. They need to have an overall strategy and stick to it. They need to make palatable what they believe in. If major restructuring is needed they have to implement it with clarity and conviction, possibly also with speed, in Ireland's case.

Leadership involves choosing a good team. Cowen has chosen badly. His closest ally and Tanaiste, Mary Coughlan, has been a serious disappointment. Brian Lenihan is disappointingly slack in strategic definition of what he is doing and, with Cowen, guilty of an appalling misjudgment over his first Budget.

Leaders need to communicate persuasively. They have to present their strategies in human and credible terms.

Leaders must know how to handle those who serve them, how to weed out the lazy, the bad and the corrupt, how to replace them with fresh talent.

For six months Brian Cowen has fumbled his way forward, making mistake after mistake, and failing repeatedly to make sense at all of our future. We know it is going to be bad. He makes it worse by his indecision. There is no strategy and no courage.