Bruce Arnold

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

Taoiseach must lead way if he wants us to pull together

Very few people in Ireland today are wallowing in anything at all, least of all a sea of doubt. People across the country are faced with hard realities. Job losses, mortgage debts, the dole queue, prices, loss of savings through the greed and ineptitude of others, reduction or total elimination of benefits, the spectre of gross wealth and greed being condoned while the numbers of those in poverty steadily rise.

This is the background to Brian Cowen's speech on Thursday. And while his remarks about the cohesive nature of our society, and the need for everyone to pull together, represented a valid proposal, it was so different from the way he has performed since coming to office as to be totally breath-taking.

He has been the arch-enemy of cooperation, cohesion, consensus and collective thinking on almost every issue, and almost every issue, as a result, has foundered. It began in the pre-Budget Cabinet discussions. These were lacking in thought and due process, as we saw, and resulted in part from the fact that experienced ministers were left out of the loop while an inexperienced leader and an inexperienced Finance Minister, and an even more inexperienced Tanaiste, made mistakes that were fairly catastrophic.

Cowen's handling of the social partnership as a mechanism for persuading the public service -- the one area of employment with security of tenure -- to take a cut in wages was inept, without any of the remedies he is now calling for.

Not alone that, the introduction of new levels of compulsory pension payments is really a sleight-of-hand, putting off rather than solving the problem. Furthermore, it has polarised those involved as well as leaving widespread dissatisfaction in those who are not within the charmed social partnership arrangement.

He has undermined self-belief by lack of example and by the unfair and misconceived remedies produced so far to cope with crisis issues, like the banks, as well as by failures to come forward with clear answers on other matters such as taxation and an alternative set of wage-cutting proposals.
Most worrying of all, in respect of cohesion and pulling together, has been his attitude to the Dail and to half the people we elected to represent us and govern us. He does not respect the Oireachtas.
I have watched political leaders, from Eamon de Valera on, dealing with crisis situations over jobs, the economy, oil, inflation, corruption, international relations, the North and Europe. Rarely has there been a more disrespectful and gross denial of the requirements of our democracy than has been demonstrated by Brian Cowen.

By its many definitions and terms of reference, democracy is about consent. The Houses of the Oireachtas, under the Constitution, are supreme.

The bad habits of those in power have led to the Dail being sidelined. This was done with smooth, silken ease by Bertie Ahern. Cowen's approach is far more gross and insulting, the worst example of it being his declaration that he would deal with the economic crisis "his way", only to discover that his way did not work.

All of this must be taken in a very particular context: that, if Cowen means what he is saying, he has to demonstrate the fact beginning with the Dail. People are tired watching Richard Bruton enumerating proposals for months, even years, by Fine Gael, that have been ignored. The Labour Party has done the same. They are reluctant to trust Cowen when the weight of evidence is that he is deeply exclusive in the way he operates.

He has worries within his own party and within the Cabinet. Senior ministers have watched with growing alarm the shortcomings in his performance. He is leading his party towards three elections in early June, four months away. Doubts about his capacity to deliver any return to popularity for Fianna Fail are widespread. The question is undoubtedly being asked: Is he the right man to lead us then?
In the face of all this he set out a stall for leadership that included almost everything he has not done since becoming leader of his party.

To get the country pulling together will require persuasive argument and the amelioration of a deeply negative attitude towards him and his ministers by a public that feels it has been
robbed, or will be robbed in the near future, of wages, taxes, benefits, savings, or investments.
He has to convince us all that he actually understands the impact of the crisis and can make happen the tall order, contained in his speech, of "reverting to growth more quickly by sticking together as a community".

He can start this weekend by meeting with other leaders and proposing a new centralisation of power within the constitutional framework of our own democracy.

On jobs, he should recognise and act on the fact that our biggest single asset as a country, commercially, is our tourist industry. The Government structures for tourism management are miserably inadequate. It is an area of job creation that lies in our own hands. We do not need outside investment. We need energy, fair-dealing, the recovery of a unique commodity: Ireland, its beauty, its people and its way of life.

If Brian Cowen wants to get emotional about us all acting together, let him start by getting in touch with those people and their elected representatives. If he does not, why should we believe in anything else he says?