TAOISEACH Brian Cowen has admitted 2009 will go down as his political annus horribilis and warned the country is only “in the middle” of a painful adjustment process necessary for economic recovery.
But he defended the steps the Government has taken to date, such as the bank bailout and devastating budgets, saying they began the task of “getting Ireland back into the game”.
He confirmed that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan will this week sign the commencement order for NAMA, the state agency that will relieve the banks of their higher risk loans.
EU approval for the plan, which critics argue could end up costing the taxpayer billions, will “probably finally come through in January”, he said.
Mr Cowen insisted he was not in conflict with Mr Lenihan, rejecting suggestions there had been key points of difference between the pair which bogged the Government down in recent months. He also played down talk of a Cabinet reshuffle next year, although failed to rule one out.
And he defended hisresponse to the Murphy report examining how the Catholic Church and state authorities handled child abuse cases in the Dublin archdiocese.
Mr Cowen was speaking at an end-of-year media briefing in Government Buildings yesterday.
Pushed about his own year, he said: “For me personally, look, of course it was the most difficult year that I’ve faced in my political life – that’s for sure – in terms of the scale of the problems and the magnitude of the challenges.
“But I’ve been lucky to have good colleagues who are equally determined to put the country first. This wasn’t about politics this year. The country’s future was at stake. And we don’t like being over-dramatic, but there were very serious issues,” he added.
“Big decisions had to be taken by this Government in the last 12, 15 months – big decisions. But hopefully, as I say, they’ll help us pull through.”
He stressed, however, that the “effort isn’t over”, saying: “We’re in the middle of a process of adjustment here that will have to continue.”
He also said that while it had been a tough year for him, it was “tougher for others”, such as people who had lost their jobs.
He insisted the budgets, the recapitalisation of the banks, NAMA, and the successful Lisbon Treaty referendum had been “real achievements” by the Government which had resulted in “a greater degree of certainty” and given the country “a platform on which to build”.
On NAMA, Mr Cowen said the completion of the loan valuation process would see “a crystallisation of the losses of the banks” and spell out the degree of recapitalisation they would require. The Government is standing ready to support the banks by injecting cash in return for a greater shareholding, he said.
On the Murphy report, Mr Cowen insisted there had been no ambiguity about his response.
Earlier this month, he attracted significant criticism for defending the Vatican, even though both it and the Papal Nuncio to Ireland had failed to respond to requests for information from the Murphy Commission.
But yesterday, he said he had simply been answering “a specific question” in the Dáil about “why certain correspondence went one way or the other”.
“You can’t draw from that that I was in any way ambiguous about the substance of the report. Quite the contrary – I was appalled by it, and am appalled by it,” he said.
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