Bruce Arnold

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

Fianna Fail must not be allowed to profit from the uncertainty

In the course of Dail exchanges on Thursday, Brian Cowen, who has adopted a trenchant, war-like demeanour since he got the four-year plan and started waving it around like a weapon, warned the opposition over its handling of figures. "Make sure they add up," he said.

He seemed encouraged by the Greens staying with him and by his own dissidents having second thoughts. But this has been achieved by an illusory trick with mirrors. The tricks must be stopped.

His "Make sure they add up" was the most preposterous of war cries. He spent the greater part of his time as Finance Minister finding that his own figures did not add up. He then presided over a Government in which his appointed replacement, Brian Lenihan, did exactly the same.

The figures on the banks did not add up. The markets saw through his trick with mirrors, so borrowing costs are still rising. The announcement of the four-year plan has not helped! Those weren't even the true figures to start with and there is doubt now over whether we are not still dealing with inbuilt instability. It will drain the huge European fund we seem forced to take.

Cowen has put this behind him, mainly because the details of it are so appalling. The days of incredibly fast and slick transition are now behind us. First, we were not going to take the bailout. Then the Government divided into those who knew this and the rest. Ministers were not operating a democratic government at all.

Cowen was doing what he does best -- though it always fails in the end -- taking the law into his own hands, against the best interests of the Irish people, and implementing that law his way. Despite grave misgivings, he established the inevitability of financial help and moved on to the four-year plan.

This gave him new, general election territory in which to fight. He is good at playing this charade, but cannot be allowed to continue. He must be stopped.

By comparison, the four-year plan has become trivial and divisive. It concerns human issues, minimal pay, VAT levels, changing income tax, public-sector job-cutting, pensions, water charges and property tax. His disposal to cut future wages but leave existing wages uncut is cowardly. He is being tough about nothing. But in time-honoured budgetary fashion, the arguments have taken centre-stage.

Meanwhile, the future plight of the country remains unaddressed. The fact that we are surrounded by debt and surrounded by the biggest collective mortgage ever taken out is slipping into second place. Tackling four-year-plan issues is trivial by comparison with what Europe is making us do. Central to that danger is the risk that it will be Cowen and his followers who will gain acceptance as the people to continue leading us.

I am amazed at the confidence with which early 2011 timetables, leading to an election, have been laid out for us. It will not happen as predicted. That is not the game plan, whether Cowen remains at the helm or is replaced, and I don't think his party has the guts to do anything about this. This process must be stopped.

A lot of what we want cut is there in forms and at levels that are neither strict enough, nor comprehensive enough. Half of them could have been dealt with in the two-and-a-half years since Cowen became Taoiseach. Instead, he did virtually nothing, sitting on his hands -- and, on the famous occasion of his interview after singing songs late into the night before, he floundered about, talking of options on which the Government had yet to decide.

T he Government was-ted time temporising until the EU and the IMF forced them to act. How then can it be trusted with this most critical of decisions regarding the fundamental solvency of the Irish State and the diminished opportunities that these new debt burdens will impose on our children, perhaps even our grandchildren? It must be stopped.

What the public clearly want -- and it has been the message of one opinion poll after another -- is that these changes, marginal though they be when set beside the horror of the bailout, which is neither saving Europe nor ourselves, should not be implemented by Cowen. The country does not want him. His judgment and care of the Irish people, both as minister and Taoiseach, has been found wanting for the last 10 years.

This is the message of the past week. However, the panic and discord is also obliterating trust and hope in the opposition. In certain key essentials, they are at odds. There is no clear and common voice. It was actually better under Liam Cosgrave and his coalition pact with Brendan Corish. That administration lasted after the turmoil of the Arms Crisis at a very difficult time for Ireland.

It was better, until the end, under Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring. The involvement of the Progressive Democrats -- at least under Desmond O'Malley's leadership -- gave to Haughey his best years, even if he gritted his teeth about depending on a coalition partner who did not trust him.

Today, the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour are seriously handicapped by rivalry and policy disparities. Why else did Sinn Fein win Donegal? There is a general feeling that Fine Gael and Labour do not promise a partnership that will actually work. It shows less promise than previous coalition alternatives to Fianna Fail.

Most tellingly, they are at odds over European help and over the terms being offered. By contrast -- and it is no more admirable -- the situation within Fianna Fail is that, apart from friction between Cowen and Lenihan, the rest of the party is dumb. This charade must be stopped.

The four-year plan has created political uncertainty. The EU and IMF intrusion has made things worse. The Budget will aggravate this. But the likelihood is that Fianna Fail will milk more out of it than other parties.

It must be stopped!