Brian Cowen ducks out as Ireland prepares for crisis election

IRELAND’s prime minister Brian Cowen yesterday announced the dissolution of the Irish parliament, in what was probably the last act of his political career.
The move brought to a close one of the most controversial governments in Ireland’s history and paved the way for the first general election since last year’s bailout of the economy by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The taoiseach was forced to hasten the 30th parliament to a premature conclusion following a catalogue of political setbacks that saw him lose the leadership of his Fianna Fail party and his coalition partners, the Greens, withdraw their support from his government.

In his address, Mr Cowen, who earlier this week announced he would not stand for re-election, argued that the forthcoming 25 February election, would “define Ireland’s economic future”.

Speaking less than an hour before meeting President Mary McAleese to formally dissolve the Dail, Mr Cowen said the election would decide “whether Ireland moves forward from this recession or whether we prolong it or indeed succumb to it”.

During a 15-minute speech, delivered partly in Gaelic, a pale Mr Cowen suggested his government was leaving behind a country on the road to economic recovery with prospects for growth. Yet outside the Dail, activists protested against a €1 an hour cut to the minimum wage that also came in yesterday. The “Ireland’s Day of Shame” demonstration was led by a coalition of trade unions and community organisations angered by wage cuts and job losses.

Mr Cowen leaves office as the shortest serving taoiseach, the first Fianna Fail leader not to lead his party into a general election and as the man who oversaw the Irish economy’s collapse and November’s €85 billion EU/IMF bailout.

Unemployment has almost reached 12 per cent, and the country expects to see 50,000 people emigrate by the end of the year as job prospects evaporate. However, public anger is unlikely to be translated into sweeping political change.

While polls suggest Labour and Fine Gael will form a coalition, neither of the two main opposition parties have managed to seal a deal with the electorate.

Fianna Fail looks set to suffer a crushing defeat and could even trail a resurgent Sinn Fein when the new Dail opens on 9 March.

But no new political grouping has emerged.

Yesterday it was left to Ireland’s traditional political leaders to make their pitch to replace Mr Cowen. Fine Gael leader and bookies’ favourite as next PM, Enda Kenny, said he plans to rebuild. “We will make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business,” he said, inadvertently echoing former Scottish Labour first minister Jack McConnell.

Article first appeared in the Scotsman 2 February

Drawn-out last gasp of political life of Brian

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