Bruce Arnold

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

We need from Cowen a declaration in favour of higher taxes and a new respect for consensus

The moral and fiscal leadership of the Irish people is at present more in the rock-solid hands of Richard Bruton than anywhere else. That is what our judgment tells us. He enjoys widespread respect from people on all sides, politically, and his views on the crisis issues are wise and courageous. He does not have all the answers, nor would he be disposed to scatter them if he did. They would be gobbled up by Fianna Fail, and there is no point in feeding truffles to pigs.

He is not a party leader and he has wisely avoided the many prompts put to him by journalists on this score. Life -- his life -- is too serious for that. Unlike the four or so candidates for Brian Cowen's job in Fianna Fail, who are scrubbing around with hints and innuendoes, ready to take over if the opportunity arises, Bruton is loyal to the party leader and concentrates instead on presenting his case and his well-researched opinions, mainly in the Dail, but of course through the media as well.
It is this that has won him widespread and well-deserved respect. He does not have all the answers. No one does. But he knows that in the end, in our parliamentary democracy, they will have to be found through democratic means. The Dail matters to him and he uses it well. It is something of a joy, to see him operating there, pressing his arguments, keeping calm, and maintaining a welcome momentum of conviction.

This is expressively so in the Dail at this time. It is further emphasised by the fact that on the other side of the House from where Richard Bruton sits the three people who should be leading the country through these difficult times, Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan and Mary Coughlan, continue to fumble and bluster their way. Decisions are as small as mustard seeds. We may have new taxes and new tax bands, we may have an early budget, but it is unlikely because of electoral considerations, we may have the social partners back again because trade union demonstrations have scared and confused the Government into yet another layer of prevarication.

On the eve of the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, when one might be assessing where Brian Cowen stands, it seems better to set him against this context of rigorous and penetrating analysis -- which, it must be said, is well-supported by other members of the Opposition, including the Labour leader and the Labour spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton -- for the simple reason that his and his party's troubles stem largely from the fact that they have seriously damaged the only worthwhile way of running this country, which is democratically.

They have treated the Dail with disrespect. They did deals behind closed doors. They pandered to interest groups, those who gave them money, those who voted for them. They fragmented the public service, creating myriad independent or quasi-independent bodies, vastly more expensive and no more efficient than what was there before.

Of course it did not work. Cowen was at the heart of it all, at the heart of government when the faulty constructions were put up, and he is there now, when they are all falling down or failing us.
He deserves the country's bad judgment, recorded in yesterday's Irish Independent opinion poll. And there is little he can say tonight that will assuage public disdain for what is essentially lack of courage.
He has not told us how badly he got it wrong, two and a half years ago, nor has he apologised. He has bullied his way into the mistakes he has made, since he became Taoiseach and he has blustered his way out again, most of the time using the Dail as a platform for his own resentment at widespread and still-growing criticism.

There is one issue on which he can build: this is the proposed consensus, certainly between the three main parties (the Greens are, perforce, already committed). Early reaction from within Fianna Fail appears to be that the party will listen to proposals but will stop short of any working consensus where the way forward, or the main ingredients, will actually be agreed in terms that can be monitored and checked.

I do not believe that Fianna Fail will concede this, and, even if Cowen is tempted to try to use it as a political dig-out, he is weak within his own party; those who would seek to succeed him would be suspicious of the hostages to fortune envisaged in such a way forward.

Eamon Gilmore is sceptical about it, and with very good reason.
He has successfully built his own leadership and his party's public standing without a single exchange on the economy between himself and Cowen other than across the Dail chamber. And most of those exchanges have been acerbic ones.

Enda Kenny has indicated a measure of power-sharing but with strict conditions. He would prefer a general election, a solution widely favoured in the country in terms that are a reflection of deep disquiet about Cowen's performance as leader.

But that is not an option.

The two main Opposition parties are together on the inescapable need for an early budget.
Fianna Fail, facing possible meltdown in an election that is only three months away, has expressed at best a vague interest in changes in the rates of taxation, meaning higher taxes.

At the very least we need tonight a declaration in favour of that requirement combined with a respectful response to the idea of a true consensus. These matters have to be addressed as part of Brian Cowen's Ard Fheis speech tonight, and what he has to say will have to be realistic, backed by a genuine reaching out across turbulent waters.

That is what Europe wants to see.