Yet this government has, for over two years, been insulting the intelligence of the Irish people. Last week it was utterly nauseating to hear one government spokesman after another telling us that they had made the hard and unpopular decisions in the interest of the country.
This is the most unpopular government in the country’s history, and its members are only deluding themselves with their claims of having made the hard decision. Brian Cowen won the vote of confidence on Tuesday, because he basically caught his party by surprise and upstaged his critics by tabling the motion of confidence in himself, thereby calling their bluff.
Unlike Charles Haughey in 1982, Cowen agreed to a secret ballot. It was probably easier for the many of those who had been critical of Cowen in the backrooms to vote for him in secret.
They had been talking behind his back, and they should have had the guts to propose a motion of no confidence. When he did that himself, they panicked. After Brian Lenihan came out publicly in support of Cowen, most of the pundits took this as a clear indication that the Taoiseach was going to win, but several colleagues came out publicly saying that this was not what Lenihan had been saying privately in recent days. His own brother, Conor, essentially said as much on Vincent Browne’s programme. In time Lenihan and Mary Hanafin may well be seen as this week’s biggest losers. Hanafin said that she voted against Cowen as Fianna Fáil leader, but she has been quite prepared to support him as Taoiseach. That does not say much for where the country ranks in her priorities. Surely the country should come before the party. But, then, that is not the way Fianna Fáil has been doing things in recent years, and that explains why the country is in such a mess.
After winning his own confidence motion, the Taoiseach lost the run of himself. “You get over the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped,” Albert Reynolds famously said.
After getting over the big hurdle on Tuesday, Cowen tried to pull a political stunt without the support of his coalition colleagues. He apparently did discuss with John Gormley the idea of replacing Micheál Martin. Tony Killeen, who was present, did not think that the Greens ruled out a new appointment, though they clearly had reservations. Gormley said: “It was not a good idea.”
The whole thing was reminiscent of what happened to Albert Reynolds. He felt the government had the right to appoint Harry Whelelan as President of the High Court, despite the reservations of the Labour Party. Reynolds ignored the concept of consensus on which cabinets had always operated, as he rammed Whelehan’s appointment through the cabinet.
Even though Éamon de Valera was often accused of being dictatorial, he used to insist on cabinet consensus for all decisions. He would not allow consideration of any subject to end with a vote, according to Seán Lemass. Instead, he sought “unanimity by the simple process of keeping the debate going — often till the small hours of the morning, until those who were in the minority, out of sheer exhaustion, conceded the case made by the majority.”
If de Valera thought that cabinet consensus was necessary for a cohesive organisation like Fianna Fáil with an overall majority, it is so more important for a coalition government. By trampling on the concept of consensus, Reynolds brought his government down. Cowen was a member of that government, but he apparently learned nothing from that mistake.
From Gormley’s interview on RTÉ News on Thursday night, it was apparent that he had not threatened to pull out of government over a new ministerial appointment, but he was not informed of four further resignations. What made the Taoiseach think that he could get away with appointing six new ministers when the Greens had problems with one or two appointments? That fact that Cowen accepted four further ministerial resignations and submitted them to the President without even consulting the Green Party leader, was a display of contempt for his cabinet colleague.
Going into the election with six extra candidates in ministerial positions might have enhanced Fianna Fáil’s electoral appeal. Although the Taoiseach was adamant that he was not trying to pull a stroke in appointing six new ministers, he clearly knew that he was going to have a perception problem, as there would be strong public resentment.
He apparently thought he could mollify public cynicism by appointing the six new ministers without ministerial salaries and without state cars. If he and his ministerial colleagues had given up their cars and surrendered the ministerial salaries two years ago, they might well have impressed the electorate. But their idea of leadership has always been to “do what I say, not what I do”.
The idea of bringing in new ministers on different terms while retaining the own current ministerial pay and perks was obviously a cynical, political stunt, which showed further contempt for his estimation of the intelligence of the Irish electorate. There is unlikely to be much public sympathy for the retiring ministers, who are not running for re-election largely because there is very little likelihood that any of them would get back into government, if the recent polls are accurate.
By not running for re-election they will be able to retire on pensions, which will be 20% higher than they would earn as backbenchers, if re-elected. In addition, they will receive termination deals running between €75,000 and €300,000. Those amount to rewards for their monumental bungling. Yet they are advocating a 90% tax on the bankers’ bonuses in the Finance Bill published yesterday.
This is typical of the lousy leadership of current government, which has bankrupted this country. Hitting the bank bonuses is justified, but there should be a similar tax on such political perks. Will Fine Gael and Labour change this? They should promise now that no retired minister will be paid more than a sitting deputy. This should be made retroactive. If necessary, it should be ratified by a constitutional referendum.
In the present climate the referendum would undoubtedly pass with little difficulty, because it would be fair and just. It should be the first thing on the agenda for the next government. The people who plundered this country should probably be in jail, and those who allowed it to happen on their watch should certainly not be rewarded for their contemptible incompetence.
Those who will ultimately have to pay most for the debacle are the 100,000 young people who are going to be forced to emigrate in search a living in the next couple of years. In addition, their parents will likely be robbed of the chance of watching their grandchildren grow up. Will Fine Gael change things? “Yes, there will be pain but everybody will share in the gain,” James Reilly, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, stated on television on Thursday. He should clarify that by stating that Fine Gael would share pain, because another lousy government failing to provide leadership by would be devastating for both public morale and our political system.