Brian Cowen’s reputation as a hard-nosed political operator was in tatters well before yesterday afternoon’s session of the Irish parliament, but his latest public performance will have done little to instil confidence in Ireland’s limp premier. In what was possibly his valedictory speech to the Dáil, Mr Cowen brazenly declared “this government is functioning as it is required to”.
But a raft of evidence points to the contrary.
Having been forced to resign as leader of the governing Fianna Fáil party on Saturday, Mr Cowen found himself in the ignominious position of being leader of his country but not his own party. Then, on Sunday, his coalition partners, the Greens, pulled out of government, taking the Taoiseach’s wafer-thin majority with them.
With only seven faces remaining around the minority administration’s commodious cabinet table, the man known – not entirely affectionately – as “Biffo” presides over a government whose lifespan can best be measured in hours and days not months and years.
That Mr Cowen is still Taoiseach at all is down to the Finance Bill. Once the bill, the exclusive piece of business before the Dáil this week, is passed, the current administration – the most unpopular in the state’s history – will formally end.
The bill is set to bring into force the emergency budget passed in December, including €6 billion in spending cuts as agreed under the terms of the IMF/ECB bailout package.
Although that budget was extremely contentious, leading to large-scale public protests, all the main political parties except Sinn Fein have pledged to support the bill.
Fine Gael and Labour – favourites to comprise the next government – have agreed not to obstruct its swift passage through parliament, while the Greens have said they will vote in favour when the bill is put before the Dáil. This will probably be before Friday.
The bill’s speedy passage is the price Fianna Fáil is paying for the opposition’s decision to postpone a Labour motion of no-confidence scheduled for today.
As a consequence, a bill which would normally take six week or more to pass through the Irish parliament is being telescoped into less than seven days, with the Seaned, Ireland’s second chamber, taking the unusual step of meeting on Saturday to debate the measure.
Emergency legislation is not as rare in Ireland as it once was. The disastrous bank guarantee, by which the state underwrote Irish banks to the tune of €440bn, was passed almost overnight in 2008; likewise the toxic-loan appropriating National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).
The Finance Bill is arguably as important – if not more so – than either of those measures.
But as the veracity of Mr Cowen’s mandate – he was neither elected leader of Fianna Fáil nor Taoiseach – comes under ever increasing scrutiny, the moral argument for making the Finance Bill an issue for the general election grows.
Ireland’s economic and social possibilities for at least the next five years will be shaped by this bill – some commentators are suggesting that to hold a general election after its ratification is to deny the public a say in the country’s future.
And the possibility remains that the bill won’t make it through the Dáil. With Ireland already in election mode, the government’s two independents, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, have both pledged to vote against the bill, no doubt mindful of the mood in their constituencies. This would leave Mr Cowen’s moribund administration dependent on Fine Gael or Labour abstentions to pass it.
The scene is set for yet another long week in Irish politics. The Finance Bill’s future might be unclear but Fianna Fáil’s does not seem so opaque. An opinion poll last weekend put support for the party at a paltry 8 per cent; already 17 sitting Fianna Fáil TDs have announced that they will not be seeking re-election, many mindful of embarrassing defeat.
Last week, Brian Cowen made great play of calling a general election for 11 March. Now the vote seems certain to be earlier – most likely 25 February. As the curtain falls on Mr Cowen’s political career, even the timing of his leaving, it seems, is no longer of his choosing.
This article first appeared in the Scotsman January 26