Cowen bullish over economic turnaround

Brian Cowen today bullishly predicted a turnaround in the economy by next year as he attempted to claw back the confidence of his own party ranks.

In a rally-the-troops speech at the Fianna Fáil think-in, the Taoiseach admitted he had made mistakes but insisted he could rescue the country within the lifetime of this government.

Security remained tight at the two-day event in the Hodson Bay Hotel outside Athlone after hundreds of protesting farmers attempted to storm the building during the morning.

The Gardaí was forced to lock down the hotel when around 200 demonstrators, angry at agriculture cutbacks, broke through security barriers as Finance Minister Brian Lenihan arrived in his ministerial Mercedes.

About 50 gardaí, including trained riot officers with their batons drawn, fought to contain the surge as plain clothes detectives helped usher Mr Lenihan inside.

One protester was rugby-tackled to the ground as he ran towards the hotel while another bus-load of farmers that had just arrived were prevented from leaving the coach.

Tensions were eased only after Fianna Fáil officials vowed to arrange a meeting between Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) president Padraig Walshe and Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith.

A high-profile Garda security operation, including three vehicle checkpoints on the way into the hotel and Garda water unit patrols of the surrounding Lough Ree, will remain in place until tomorrow.

Inside the hotel, Mr Cowen attempted to shore up trust from his parliamentary party, which is languishing at a historic low in recent voter opinion polls.

In a private speech to his rank and file, the Fianna Fáil leader said it was the party’s “patriotic responsibility” to rescue Ireland from the economic crisis.

Vowing to return the country to prosperity within the life-time of this government, he forecast a return to modest economic growth by the second half of next year.

The recession will be over by 2011, according to latest Department of Finance estimates, if the right action is taken, he said.

“If we do what is right in the short term, we can get through this,” he added.

“If we take the correct policy choices, we can beat this recession.”

Insisting the public had to be persuaded to “bite the bullet now” instead of putting off painful cutbacks, Mr Cowen repeatedly warned the upcoming Budget would be tough.

And in a candid admission of his own shortcomings, he said he had been “tested hard” during the “toughest storm to hit our country since independence.”

“I want to be honest with you. I know I’ve not got everything right. No leader ever does,” he said.

“I know I need to do better and I am determined to justify to the last ounce the great confidence this party has reposed in me.”

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