Getting rid of Cowen and his failed government is the easy part

TONY Blair and George Bush maintained one maxim throughout the Iraq war.

The absence of weapons of mass destruction and subsequent civil war strife never deflected them from the singular truism that “regime change” from Saddam Hussein was justified. As we are buffeted from bust to bailout and beyond, one central hope remains — that regime change in Ireland is secured. The general election could be held on Thursday, February 24.

Green withdrawal from government after the budget, early in the new year was a long-awaited defining moment in our crisis. For many Fianna Fáil supporters this has been the most upsetting incident of the past three years, accusing the Greens of treachery. They berate the disastrous timing with the international media present. The country could endure any disaster, but the party deserved better. This honest reaction underlines the tribal commitment of die hard FF supporters and members. The reality that FF is going to be prised from the perks of office hit home. Thirteen years of patronage, pull and power are nearing an end. It’s not a moment too soon.

There is little reason to believe FF’s 21% vote share in Donegal South West will be unrepresentative of the national constituency average. Urban anger, particularly in Dublin, is even stronger, while traditional inter-generational loyalties can only be weaker. This equates to 36 seats. When compared to 78 seats, garnered with 42% of the vote in 2007, a deficit of 40 seats and decimation cannot be ruled out. With politicians, there is ultimate democratic accountability. Given the depths to which we have sunk, this retribution does not go far enough. Figureheads of failure await their fate. Other culprits face the usual Irish consequences: promotion, retirement, golden handshakes, company directorships, consultancies, gold-plated pensions and golf. Dermot McCarthy has served nine years as Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach. He attends and administers cabinet meetings. Along with Bertie Ahern, he was the principal believer in social partnership, quangos and public expenditure solutions. The next government must insist on his immediate dismissal. All secretary generals and chairpersons of state bodies should be obliged to tender their resignations. These were all cabinet appointments. They must take collective responsibility for the current disaster.

Don’t have rose-tinted optimistic hopes for the next government. Like Obama and Cameron, any honeymoon will be short lived — quickly followed by odium and unbridled unpopularity. The central point is that it is impossible to pursue a fresh start without transformation of personnel in authority. Otherwise, there will be continuing loyalty to legacies. The National Recovery Plan provides ample evidence of an inability to let go of the past. Unwavering commitment to your own decisions are exemplified in the retention of the construction timetable for the Metro North project and the preservation of €500ml investment on road projects in Northern Ireland. These plans originated from a bygone era. They need to be jettisoned forthwith.

The Croke Park agreement remains intact, despite the bailout. Public sector pay increased by 8% per annum each year from 1999 to 2008. The austerity package poses no threat to Principal Officers earning €106k a year or departmental Assistant Secretaries on €146k a year. Over this decade, additional appointments to these grades exceeded 40%. The structure and membership of the Croke Park implementation body is designed to prevent diminution of pay and conditions of public servants. Sheila Noonan (INTO), Patricia King (SIPTU), Shay Cody (Impact) and Tom Geraghty (PSEU) comprise half of this organisation. Their primary role is to protect their members’ entitlements. Their first loyalty is not the Exchequer, but their union. Regime change includes the remnants of the partnership process.

The plan preserves public servants at the expense of others. 154,000 private sector workers will have their private pension schemes crippled by disincentives. A ceiling on pension pots, such as Michael Fingleton’s €27m was long overdue but many prudent prospective pensioners will be unable to afford protection in their retirement. Lack of flexibility on the €17bn public payroll means welfare recipients will take a harsher hit. €2.8bn cost reductions in welfare will increase poverty among the most vulnerable in society. Government didn’t even have the inclination for equity to abolish universal entitlement to benefits. Means testing is the axis towards fairness.

The plan doesn’t countenance radical surgery in departments. No mention of a new Department of Public Service Reform. The old architecture of hotch potch departments such as Community Affairs/Equality and Arts, Sports & Tourism survive from yesteryear. The quangos escaped minor burns, not to mention the necessary bonfire. If ever there was an opportunity to use a crisis to accelerate change, this was it. Tired, failed, unimaginative thinking from the same worn-out minds persists. Those who anticipate any punitive action against failed bankers or delinquent developers will be disappointed. The end game of investigations by the Garda Fraud Squad and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) looks likely to be fruitless. The journey into this cul de sac is destined to establish that any nefarious white collar activity was aided and abetted by officialdom. Prepare for the ‘green jersey’ excuse. Bankers, in shoring up liquidity and concealing insolvency, will argue they made the bureaucrats aware of their major moves. Regime change must include a naming and shaming of all such public personnel. Their culpability is matched with their incompetence.

Evidence of momentous change in the composition in the next Dáil is apparent. The growing list of ageing FG deputies retiring is a clear recognition of the fate of future government backbenchers. Seymour Crawford, PJ Sheehan, Jim O’Keeffe, Paul Connaughton and Ulick Bourke realise that life as a lightening rod conductor for local angst is no existence at all. When the unthinkable, such as reductions in pupil teacher ratios and hospital closures occur, backbenchers will bear the brunt of the anger. Expect a new cohort of protest politicos to win through. Sinn Féin is set for growth for the first time since 2004.

Down on the ground, ordinary folk have been cast onto a tiresome treadmill. 2011 growth forecasts by Dr Peter Bacon, Garret Fitzgerald and Davy’s, are at best static. €6bn deficit adjustments will suck the life out of incomes from enhanced exports. Debt default will have to await Merkel’s machinations as poor old Ireland has been placed in receivership. Our insolvency practitioners have insisted the first condition of our frugal future is to repay senior bank bond holders in full. These bad debts have seen our economy plummet into a tailspin that has resulted in paralysis of consumer sentiment and stark contractions of personal spending.

Thank you, Mr Gormley, for putting a date on the turning point. Opposition politicians, deprived of office for more than a decade, will have a tailwind for transformation. Neither anger nor hope is a sustainable policy. The least we deserve is an election of enlightenment. Bright, bold, courageous politicians are required to inflict a culture change in the corridors of power. Getting rid of Cowen is the easy part.

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