Bruce Arnold

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

FF is long past its sell-by date and needs removing

There are no good grounds for a significant reshuffle at this time. All idea of it should be abandoned.

It arises in the context of one arguably necessary change: the replacement of Willie O'Dea in Defence -- a portfolio of no great social or economic significance, without reform on its agenda. The necessity for the appointment is arguable. There is precedence for it being held by the Taoiseach, obviating any need to make the appointment at all.

There is the replacement of Trevor Sargent. This is not the Taoiseach's responsibility. Constitutionally, junior ministers are a government responsibility involving the participation of the Green Party, something John Gormley seemed unaware of in a comment made this week about Brian Cowen's rights to appoint.

In addition, it might be desirable to remove Mary Coughlan, both from her post as Tanaiste and her responsibilities as Minister for Gaffes. The latest of these has been her outrageous misrepresentation of the power and capacity of government to respond at Dublin Airport to the country's primary need, employment. Removing her won't happen. Whatever Cowen's arguments, now being widely debated, they are not about good governance.

This is the key issue, and at the head of any list of reasons for the foolishness of a fundamental reshuffle must be this: that to move senior ministers in the interests of a supposed reform programme is the height of folly and in defiance of the present need for stability and continuity in the public interest.

I do not believe that Cowen has pursued his initial promise, when he became Taoiseach -- that he would engage in reform. I do not believe that his ministers have followed that objective with diligence and determination. But at least they have absorbed the departmental and civil service response to the crying need for reform, as outlined by the McCarthy report, by committees, other reports and other sources, and by wise public comment via the media. The foolishness, therefore, of pursuing this course of action -- a reshuffle at this time and with so little actual reform achieved -- should be evident to all.

To remove the political instruments of change, and shuffle them about at this time, is simply to set any programme back by months, as new incumbents plead that they need time to assess what their predecessors had theoretically, if reluctantly, absorbed over the past year or so. It is more like buying time until electoral opportunities improve. Actual reform is replaced by further consideration of it, thus delaying it. This is not going on anyway, but we live in frail hope and tenuous trust of it being seen out of the corner of a few politicians' eyes.

Reform was always a fundamental issue for the Greens. They once had a taste for it. One remembers their election manifestos and their frequent pharisaical conferences since, demonstrating they were not like any other politicians. They favoured widespread reform of the system and of the objectives of Irish society. Having turned into putty in Cowen's hands, they will welcome the reshuffle. They will do so for the second reason, addressed below.

Cowen wants to draw a line as quickly as he can under the O'Dea affair and under the political assassination of Sargent. Cowen was emphatic, even categoric in denying that the letters came from within Fianna Fail. But no one knows where they came from, rendering such denial quite unreliable. The only person who can be categoric about where the leak came from is the person behind the leak.

Once the euphoria about Sargent has worn off, we should remember his promise not to lead his party into coalition with Fianna Fail. Effectively he led them in. Overnight, he became convinced about getting into government. The Greens' interests would have been better served by allowing Fianna Fail to form a minority government instead, giving the Greens the power they so readily surrendered in the well-feathered Merrion Street nest.

A Cowen reshuffle will stifle Green Party determination to make demands on Fianna Fail. They will toe the line, fill Sargent's place, approve whatever else Cowen decides, and continue to sink in public estimation.

Meanwhile, Gormley and Eamon Ryan issue absurd mantras about 'getting on with the job' and 'addressing the real issues'.

It rests at Cowen's door: how little is working out for the Government. He has made many mistakes. He has failed to bring forward necessary change and the legislation for it. The record on both is dismal. His declaration, when he became Taoiseach, to rectify, by reform, the distortion and undermining of the political and public service structures on which we depend has proved superficial.

Basic structures have been stripped of authority, duplicated by newly-created bodies and

To remove the political instruments of change, and shuffle them about at this time, is simply to set any programme back by months

then triplicated by an army of private advisers to ministers. Do we believe that he has taken up this initiative again? I don't.

Trust in him is far lower than it has ever been for an Irish political leader. His party cannot but see him as a bullying, hectoring failure. And they cannot be that keen on his latest target, which is to include Fianna Fail in the list of institutions needing reform.

Fianna Fail does not need reforming. It needs removing. It has long since passed its sell-by date and should be taken off the shelf of power and deposited on the opposition benches.

Once there, as on previous occasions, it will be forced to reform if it is to come back from the political wilderness. This enforced rejuvenation is the only reform that will work for the organisation.

No one knows this better, surprisingly, than the present leader of the Green Party, who, like others of his predecessors in coalitions with the Men of Destiny, has suffered almost total humiliation at their hands and has viewed, like a mesmerised rabbit facing a fox, the inner workings of the party.

How he goes on with this is becoming a new wonder of the world.