Taoiseach turns good news story into a bad one

IF you are Brian Cowen you have to be grateful for the small victories.

But if you are Brian Cowen, you will see the victories right in front of you, decide due process means you are not compelled to seize them, and walk away as you are handed the prize.

The events of the past 24 hours should have been a good news story for the Taoiseach: The EU Commissioner, a former taoiseach and some of the most long-standing members of his party, virtuously decided to “gift” their ministerial pensions to the taxpayer.

But the Taoiseach didn’t just decline the opportunity to claim credit for delivering what the angry public had been calling for, he went out of his way to point out that his colleagues had made this “gesture” on their own accord.

As he did with last week’s controversy over a €1.5m bonus payment to Bank of Ireland chief, Richie Boucher, Mr Cowen refused every opportunity to ask Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to hand back her ministerial pension.

When she eventually caved in to pressure on Monday night, Mr Cowen sent out a statement of gratitude.

He should have had the political instinct to see that this would lead to the ball rolling for Fine Gael and Labour TDs to give up theirs, putting huge pressure on Fianna Fáil to follow.

Maybe Mr Cowen was afraid the Fianna Fáil TDs still holding onto their ministerial pensions at that point would disobey his call, making him look weak. If so it demonstrates a lack of confidence in his own leadership.

But while he was speaking in the Dáil, his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, was contacting Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to say he was giving up his €83,000 pension.

Mr Cowen continued to say last night through his spokesperson that he “always reflected the fact that it was up to individuals what to do with their pension entitlements”.

Asked if Mr Cowen should be ethically or morally guiding TDs to relinquish the payment until they retire from the Dáil, a Government spokesperson insisted “as taoiseach he has to ensure the law of the land is upheld”.

This is effectively an admission by Mr Cowen that he is not willing to show leadership to his party beyond what they are legally required to do.

If the three Fianna Fáil TDs still holding onto their ministerial pensions do not give them up before next week, Fine Gael will propose legislation before the Dáil on the issue.

This leaves the Taoiseach just €60,000 away from an embarrassing vote which the Greens would find difficult to support.

Allowing “individual discretion” to apply to Jim McDaid, Noel Treacy and Michael Woods might be a high price to pay.

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