Brian Cowen has lead Ireland’s political Leviathan into unprecedented trouble, writes Eoin Martin, and it does not seem he knows the way out…
It was 1926 when Fianna Fáil last won the support of just 26 per cent of voters. That was their very first electoral outing and was a very impressive showing given that Cumann na nGaedheal, the incumbent party won just 27 per cent.
What is far more impressive was that between then and now, Fianna Fáil has never enjoyed the support of less than 30 per cent of the Irish people. What on earth has happened?
The discovery that grannies and granddads could shout louder and be more angry than students is what happened. The significant question for Fianna Fáil is what to do next. The party which has dominated Irish politics for two in every three years of the State’s history has some very serious headaches.
There are potentially up to three-and-half-years to run of this current Dáil though it is perhaps less likely than it seemed a few months ago to last that long. Apart from the appalling recent opinion poll results, the next biggest difficulty faced by Brian Cowen is that we are only at the beginning of a potentially very difficult economic cycle.
Recession is such an exotic word to Celtic Tiger cubs that it has perhaps been over-used of late. It’s easy to forget that we’re only about one month into this current mess and while most of us were on our summer holidays, things still seemed reasonably rosy. That’s an indication of how quickly things have turned but more worryingly, how quickly the Government has utterly lost control.
If Fianna Fáil were to call an election now, they would receive a mauling the like of which has never been seen. They would be reduced to roughly Fine Gael’s current size. Fine Gael and Labour on the other hand could probably expect to make huge gains at their expense, something that doesn’t usually happen.
What is particularly scary about this prospect for Fianna Fáil is that they would lose so many seats that they would find it hard to regain them in one go, no matter how badly the incumbents do. The unthinkable might happen. Fianna Fáil might spend two consecutive spells in opposition. It might seem tempting in theory for Fianna Fáil to get out of government now and let Fine Gael and Labour become unpopular by cleaning up the mess. Then at the appointed hour the Soldiers of Destiny could return to put things to rights once more.
If Fianna Fáil were to call an election now, they would receive a mauling, the like of which has never been seen
This, however, is unrealistic. Both Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan would personally be risking political suicide. Furthermore, no backbencher ever likes the very high probability of their party suffering apocalyptic losses. The more realistic alternative for Cowen and his Green and PD coalition partners is naturally to carry on in government as planned. This itself poses all sorts of risk for all three parties.
The biggest problem is that things are likely to get worse before they get better. Indeed, such is the unfairness of life that while things can get worse for reasons beyond our control, things will almost certainly not get better unless the Government takes affirmative action.
The measures the Government is likely to have to introduce to raise revenue and keep the public finances under control are likely to have to be ever more severe. Already this month, Hungary, a fellow EU member has sought the help of the International Monetary Fund.
Ireland will want to avoid such a meltdown. Can Messrs Cowen and Lenihan deliver?
They have effectively fallen at the first hurdle by caving on two key issues in their first and probably softest budget. It is not impossible for a government facing such a challenge to improve its poll rating. British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has seen a recovery in his popularity in the UK because he is perceived to be handling the current crisis well. Arguably he was handling the economy better while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer than Brian Cowen was as Minister for Finance, however.
In seeking to reverse the current poll trends, Fianna Fáil may hope to play on the fears of voters about the possibility of a government lead by Enda Kenny, whose economic credentials are no better than the current Taoiseach’s. Added to this, Labour and Fine Gael, the natural coalition partners are drifting apart slightly with Labour becoming more leftist while Fine Gael demands more public sector reform. These positions could be hard to reconcile.
Even so, government backbenchers and indeed local councillors will find it incredibly difficult to defend the type of budget measures the cabinet has introduced unless Ministers adopt a much more coherent approach. The pattern of cutbacks in Brian Lenihan’s budget was so random and lacking in overall strategy that it’s hard for any government member to say what they stand for. The line about protecting the vulnerable is all but in shreds.
Despite the ongoing rumblings from the Green Party, particularly Education spokesman Paul Gogarty, the junior party is likely to hold their position as long as they can. Their stint in government will be a wasted exercise unless they achieve at least some measure of change on environmental policies though they may pay a higher political price than expected.
Ultimately, no election is likely in the short term which is probably in everyone’s interests. Even though just 20 per cent of voters now have confidence in the government’s ability to manage the economy – a shocking reversal – what the medical card and education cut controversies have shown is the need for the public to answer some hard questions.
The best thing that can happen now is that the Government can pull together some semblance of a coherent strategy and offer it to the public. This will force the opposition parties to form a viable alternative. It is essential that as soon as possible, whoever is in government is not only willing to make tough decisions but has the support of the people to carry them through.