A leader in denial - Cowen is now part of the problem

ED TOM BELL, the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, has a throwaway line that more or less captures our situation.

When he and his deputy Wendell discover a dozen or so bullet-ridden Mexicans, the result of a drugs war skirmish in desert back country, Wendell describes the scene.

“It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?”

“If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here,” responds a world-weary but prescient Ed Tom.

Two statements yesterday, Brian Cowen’s increasingly untenable position and today’s critical sale of €1 billion in Government bonds, give us more than an indication that the real mess may be just around the corner.

First, the statement from Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan urging the Government to cut even more than it had intended in December’s budget. He argued that the anticipated cuts do not go far enough. He warned that international lenders need to be convinced that we are ready to take our medicine. Rejecting calls for more spending to kick start the economy, he said that cuts were the only option open to us.

Sobering indeed, especially as the Croke Park deal protects public sector pay and precludes redundancies.

Mr Honohan’s comments come a week after Finance Minister Brian Lenihan clarified that the budget would involve cuts of “at least” €3 billion so, if he is to take Mr Honohan’s advice, we can all expect substantial increases in taxes, new taxes and cuts in services.

This dismal prospect was rejected by a well-placed EU official. Expressing surprise at the comments the official described them as “not the most helpful for Mr Lenihan”. Once again where we should get clarity and unity in pursuit of a single objective there is confusion.

Before Fianna Fáil sequester even a part of these remarks as an endorsement of their policies it must be pointed out that the official also underlined the need for political stability.

It is impossible to imagine anything approaching political stability as long as Mr Cowen remains Taoiseach. He has squandered too many chances. His decisions – or lack of them – at so many decisive junctures have proved little short of disastrous. Most importantly he has not shown the capacity to grow into the job and project the surefootedness, competence or authority that might turn growing pessimism to something that might eventually become optimism. This is especially tragic as so very much was promised.

It is hard to think of even one good reason to prolong the agony for Mr Cowen and his family, for Government or for the country. Mr Cowen should accept what even some of his senior colleagues and very many of his bankbenchers have recognised. The game is up and a change in leadership is essential for the country if maybe not for Fianna Fáil. Yesterday afternoon’s Leinster House briefing – what purpose did it serve? – did nothing to either inspire or change that.

As it transpired Ed Tom was right to expect things to get worse and unless what seems to be a growing revolt in Fianna Fáil succeeds we may have to share his fatalism. We still have time for a new beginning – just – let’s hope that those who can bring it about have the determination and selflessness to get the job done.


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