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May 2008. Armageddon.

Sunday May 10 2009

Ignore, for the moment, the headline figures of doom and gloom. Last week's Exchequer returns may have looked awful on the bottom line -- there was an €8 billion gap between income and expenditure in the first four months of the year -- but even within the dark numbers there was reason for some very cautious optimism.

These may seem like the feeblest of straws, but . . . the fall in income tax receipts was not as bad as expected, and the overall decline in tax receipts was only marginally worse than the decrease for the first three months of the year. There is a chance, however faint, that Ireland's precipitous collapse from boom to bust has started to flatline.

Jobs continue to be lost, but the rate of loss is slowing; our exports are slipping, but not as badly as everyone else's; consumer confidence is shot to pieces, but there are no signs of it getting worse; and, if you care, our inflation rate is the lowest in EU. We may not have touched bottom yet, but the plunge is beginning to level off.

This would be cause for some relief if only we could point to specific actions that the Government had taken to make this happen. That's where the good news starts to unravel. Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Finance, could argue that his income tax levies have started to kick in, but that is about it.

On the true barometer of Government activity -- its day-to-day spending -- the figures continue to deteriorate. That is the most shocking indictment of Lenihan and Brian Cowen, his taoiseach of the moment.

The one major item that is in their power to control is out of control. True, they have slashed capital spending but that is as easy as it is small compared to the vast demands of the public sector payroll, social welfare and general departmental spending.

The rise in spending shows conclusively that Cowen and Lenihan are incapable of leading a recovery.

Their response to recession is to raise taxes and cut capital spending, and then sit tight and wait, hoping against hope that Barack Obama's green shoots of recovery grow fast enough to save them from the wrath of the electorate.

That, however, is a forlorn hope.

Cowen's inability to grasp the meaning of leadership, his inability to step outside the Fianna Fail tribe and his dumb refusal to face up to his role in our downfall have all contributed to a seething public anger that seasoned politicians say is unprecedented.

Cowen is now leading his party towards humiliation in next month's European and local elections and Dail by-elections. Fianna Fail and the Green Party, its co-conspirators in this Government of denial, will be savaged at the polls. The Dublin by-elections, energised by George Lee's arrival on the scene, will be a rout. The people are itching for their chance to get into a polling booth and register their disgust with a Government that does not know how to govern.

Local elections can be trickier to read -- Fianna Fail did badly last time out, so it will hope to pretend that it has not done so badly this time -- but should still prove painful.

The European elections could prove to be as humiliating a rout for Cowen as the Dublin by-elections. Blind loyalty may prompt a few Fianna Failers out into the open, but it would not be a surprise if the party did not manage to win a single seat, particularly since it cannot even get a serious candidate in the West.

And that's where the news starts to brighten again. While it is impossible for those outside Fianna Fail to understand its innermost thoughts (who, other than Fianna Fail, would have thought that Bertie's older brother was a great wheeze in Dublin Central? Or Seamus Brennan's son the ideal choice to stem a tide of voter dissatisfaction with old-style politics?), there has to be a reasonable chance that humiliation on a grand scale will cause this Government to fall.

It is possible, of course, that Fianna Fail will think that shedding Cowen is enough, and that it can impose a second un-mandated taoiseach in just over a year, but that will not run. Even the Greens, who have shown steely resolve to cling to office no matter what, would have to recognise that their Government had lost the people and would have to fall.

A summer general election on the back of a June debacle is now the best thing we can hope for: a chance to cleanse the air of Cowen's failure, debate our future and mandate a new government to take the essential corrective action on government spending.

It will not be pretty and it will not be easy -- the Labour Party will have to be weaned off its populist nonsense -- but the result cannot be worse than what we have endured for the past year.

The alternative is really, really awful. If Cowen is not humiliated out of office by the voters on June 5, his Government will limp into the summer recess, wounded but not quite dead. And then it will do nothing, just as it did nothing last summer as evidence of disaster mounted daily. The banking crisis will continue to evolve, but decision making will be either poor or non-existent. Anglo Irish Bank, already nationalised, is a paralysed entity; AIB lurches towards disaster and State rescue, yet the shares of the still privately owned banks continue to rise as the markets calculate that the taxpayer, not the shareholders, will pay the price of failure.

The National Asset Management Agency, a bureaucratic monster in the making, will not solve the banks' problems swiftly, or cleanly, or at all. Their basic problems are the same today as they were in September last year: the banks need to be honest about their potential loan losses, make the necessary provisions and then turn cap in hand to Government to make good the losses. In return, the Government takes shares and ends up with control and possibly outright ownership, with a commitment to return the bank to private ownership as quickly as possible.

Nationalisation would be swifter, but is resisted, even though it must be possible to construct a nationalisation that fell short of expropriation by offering existing shareholders participation in a future sale.

Whatever the final solution, it will require brave, clear-headed government, and not men and women too frightened of their own shadows to make a decision, yet that is what we will have if Cowen survives in June.

Those faint flickerings of recovery -- or, at least, of stabilisation -- will disappear in a flash as the country plunges into despair at the thought of yet more Cowen, yet more inaction, yet more bluster and waffle.

His implosion as a Taoiseach is at its most visible in the economic disaster that he has watched unfold, but there are plenty of other signs that his Government has no sense of why it is in power.

Dermot Ahern, the Minister for Justice, fiddles with a nonsensical interpretation of blasphemy and walks away from a constitutional referendum that would protect children from sexual predators.

Batt O'Keeffe, the Minister for Education, launches a vicious attack on Protestant education, yet does not seem to understand or care that he has crossed a line of real significance for members of a very silent, and normally quiescent, minority.

Martin Cullen, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, presides over a dysfunctional sports policy that has been damaged by the unchecked feuding between the Irish Sports Council and the Olympic Council of Ireland.

Mary Coughlan, the Tanaiste, is simply out of her depth while Mary Harney, the Minister for Health, has faded into sad irrelevance. Cowen's Government is a shambles, bereft of leadership or direction or sense of purpose and the sooner it is out of office, the better.

Optimism is hard to embrace, but the bare numbers show that the economy could be approaching a tipping point. With the right prods from government -- reduced current spending, a programme of privatisation, deep reform of the public sector, a burning down of quangos and a real determination to transform the business of government and politics -- Ireland could recover from recession sooner rather than later, and could emerge stronger rather than weaker. The great benefits of the boom years have not been lost: Ireland is now an entrepreneurial country with solid, successful modern industries and, where the unions have been kept at bay, a flexible workforce that wants to work and succeed.

A new government, untainted by its role in the economy's demise, could seize on the positives and drive through the changes that could help us all turn the corner.

The first step, however, is yours. June 5 can be the first day of Ireland's recovery if the message sent to Cowen and his Government is crystal clear: Just go.

What a difference a year makes!

Sunday June 17 2007
FOR the moment, let us play along with the prevailing spin. This is a renewed and refreshed government, a rainbow coalition that comes to the job with a spring in its step and hope in its heart. 
Bertie Ahern, the remarkable three-in-a-row Taoiseach, has done what he does best by persuading a disparate group of independents, PDs and Greens to put aside their differences and form common purpose. His astute political brain recognised the need for renewal, so he sought out the Greens and persuaded them to join and invigorate his crusade for a better Ireland, even though he did not need their votes to become Taoiseach. 
He has, too, thrown down the gauntlet to his newest partners by giving them what they desired: responsibility for energy policy, the environment, local government and natural resources. No more whingeing, no more protest politics, no more grandstanding from the opposition benches about a government's moral responsibility to future generations: for the Greens it is now about delivery. 
In similar vein he leaves the health service in Mary Harney's control, suggesting that reform of sorts will continue. And the beauty of Ahern's numbers game is that if either of his partners goes too far, he can, reluctantly, wave them goodbye. If the unions kick up too much of a stink about Harney's reforms, don't be surprised if Ahern intervenes to smooth things out, stymie reform and neuter his minister. Just as any over exuberance from Eamon Ryan, the new minister for energy, will be quashed if it inconveniences the trade unions at the ESB. 
The three non-Fianna Fail ministers will have to tread warily (a new experience for Harney, but one forced on her by the dramatically changed circumstances of her involvement in this government), and yet they will have to deliver real change for their own supporters. It will be an extremely difficult balancing act and for the two Green Party ministers an even steeper learning curve. But, for the moment, let us continue in positive mode. 
The Green's can be lampooned for negotiating so long and so hard to win so little; they can be lampooned too for claiming throughout those negotiations that policy was all that mattered and government formation was secondary, but the party of protest has emerged from it all with the portfolios it coveted. 
It has a paid a price for those two seats at the cabinet table - losing its leader, its credibility on the left and its place beside the loonier fringes of the anti-capitalist groups - but it can argue that it was a price well worth paying. 
The party has given itself a chance to prove that it can make a difference, and it has that chance in a government that is inherently conservative and risk-averse. 
Ryan and John Gormley, the new minister for the environment, will not be able to indulge flights of fancy or loose experiments because Fianna Fail will not allow it. Everything they propose will have to be examined, and re-examined, pulled, prodded and probed before it is unleashed. Their future, and their party's future, depends on the credibility of their time in office. If they can deliver on their promise and make a difference - without unduly disrupting the comfort zone of the middle classes - then they may be able to move the Greens' support base from the political fringe to the mainstream. 
So in this brave new world, what else can we expect from Ahern's rainbow? That, I'm afraid, is where the positive spin unravels. Ahern's sizeable Dail majority and collection of new partners has come at minimum cost to him and signals no fundamental change of direction from this government. He has had to give away one extra Cabinet seat to his partners along with 'milluns' of the taxpayers' money (not Fianna Fail's money, mind, to secure a vote for Ahern, but yours and mine). 
And that's it. There have been no major concessions, no policy U-turns, no heads delivered on plates. Dick Roche, the former minister of the environment, is the only loser from the previous Cabinet but he will not be deprived of the pleasure of hearing himself speak because he has been compensated with a junior minister's role - Minister for Europe - that has all the opportunity for media exposure and none of the responsibility of actually doing anything that matters. 
True, John O'Donoghue did not look delighted by his new role as Dail referee, but he will get used to it. Apart from those minor tinkerings, a few positional shifts and the promotion of Brian Lenihan from quasi-minister to the real McCoy at Justice, it was hardly earth-shattering. And surviving unscathed, of course, were the duffers of the previous government - Martin Cullen, Micheal Martin and Eamonn O Cuiv (there really is a full-time minister called O Cuiv, though few outside the west of Ireland might have noticed). 
Ahern may introduce some new faces in the junior ranks, but they will be window dressing and related to geography and internal party politics, not talent. 
The Cabinet indicates the direction of government, and Ahern believes that everything about the last government was just fine so there is no need to change direction. The economy may be at risk, but the remedy will be more of the same: more social partnership, more benchmarking pay awards, more faffing about, even though the circumstances have changed. 
Reform was mentioned in the Dail on Thursday, but only by Richard Bruton of Fine Gael. The government will continue to throw money at problems, and will just hope that the money keeps coming in. It will continue spending, and will hope that its largesse will keep the economy primed. On social issues, what chance is there of this new government legislating for the fallout from the abortion referenda? Will Brian Lenihan push ahead with a simple referendum to restore adequate protection for child rape victims, or will he continue with the fudge and nonsense of a broadly-based referendum on children's rights? 
There will, of course, be some action from this government. The media can expect a backlash from its treatment of Ahern's peculiar personal financial arrangements in the Nineties and it would not be a shock if one of Lenihan's earlier acts was to breathe fresh life into privacy legislation and huff and puff a bit more about the need for tighter press regulation. The government may also take some swipes at the pesky Mahon tribunal, which still threatens to unravel Ahern's career even if his new partners in government have decided to ignore the Taoiseach's stumbling and inconsistent explanations of why and how he received so much cash in the early Nineties. 
Their attitude contrasts sharply with Trevor Sargent's decision to resign as Green party leader, and creates a peculiar two-tiered Green morality. Sargent applied one, stringent, law to himself in a rare display (from an Irish politician) of integrity and honesty and another, far looser, law to Ahern. Harney, meanwhile, appears to have conveniently forgotten that ethics and principles were part of the PD's DNA. It is a confusing mix of integrity and political calculation, and it is not healthy. 
And lurking unpleasantly beneath the surface of this new government are the deals - still secret - that have been cut with the independents to secure their support. 
How much public money has been promised to buy power for Fianna Fail? And, to borrow Brian Cowen's attack on the opposition parties during the election, who will be the losers? What projects will be shelved so that Jackie Healy Rae's pet demands can be met? Just as we can wonder, as Cowen most surely would have, what other department has lost €350m so that the Green's demand on education can be met. Fewer hospital beds next year? Fewer gardai? 
The deals with the independents reveal the shabbiness of Ahern's politics and fatally undermine the spin that this new government is all about stability and fresh thinking. The independents have been bought as an insurance policy against either the PDs or the Greens stepping out of line, and they bring nothing but the triumph of the parish pump over the national interest. They are Ahern's minders, at our expense, and their presence diminishes the government and reduces its potential for vitality. 
A fresh start? Spin another one. This government could be even worse than the last, with the disparate collection of parties and independents nullifying any prospect of reform or tough thinking, and its success measured by its stickability and not its achievements. 
Harney's pace of reform in health is likely to be slower, not faster, as she looks over her shoulder for the first time, vulnerable to Fianna Fail backbenchers and the Greens. Ryan and Gormley, too, will be hemmed in by their partners and by the sheer scale of the portfolios they have been given. They will try, but progress will be slow and success very uncertain. As for the rest of the Fianna Fail ministers, they will do what they did the last time and the time before: not very much. 
- Alan Ruddock 

Aherns successor; Another clone-another clown..

If you reward bad behaviour, you should not be surprised to find it repeated. The incompetence of Bertie

Ahern's government was not a well-kept secret in the months and years leading up to the last general

election, and it is not a shock that he and his ministers have simply carried on where they left off.

When voters decided that Ahern and Fianna Fail did not deserve to be punished for wasting the proceeds

of Ireland's economic progress, they should not be too surprised when the same levels of incompetence are

 carried through into the subsequent administration. Some of the faces have changed and a new party has

been added to the mix, but the same casual arrogance pervades.

And why not? Two previous administrations wasted billions on road projects, spent hundreds of millions on

transport systems that were costed on the back of envelope, poured billions into the health service without

pausing to reform it and refused, from start to finish, to take responsibility for anything that went wrong.

Yet when it came to the polls, the voters had a look at the opposition parties, took stock of their own

economic circumstances and decided, on balance, that the devil they knew was the safest option.

Six months later they say they have changed their minds -- according to the latest Irish Times opinion poll

support for Fianna Fail has fallen sharply while satisfaction with Ahern has plummeted -- but if there were

an election next year, would the result be any different?

This year's pattern is almost identical to what happened in 2002 -- an Ahern victory swiftly followed by

economic downturn and voter disillusion. Back then, public anger was much more noticeable than the current

sense of weary resignation. It was fuelled by a sense that we had been conned, that the government had

known the weakness of the economy but had chosen to say nothing until after the election.

This time there is no sense of betrayal over the economy, just confirmation of ministerial incompetence. In

its place, however, is Ahern's personal betrayal. He spent much of last year and the first half of this year

railing against his enemies and protesting his innocence of any wrong-doing. All would be revealed, he said,

at the Mahon Tribunal and he was just chomping at the bit to get in there and set the record straight.

As a strategy, it worked. Concerns about Ahern's finances dominated the early weeks of the election

campaign and Fianna Fail's support slid. Then, for whatever reason, the opposition parties decided to leave

him alone. Instead of pursuing him and his credibility -- or distinct lack of it -- they backed off. It was a

failure of nerve that cost Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader, and Pat Rabbitte, then leader of the Labour

Party, their chance of ousting Fianna Fail. Brian Cowen, the minister for finance, led the fightback and Ahern

survived. For whatever reason, too, the main opposition parties also backed away from the Government's

weakest flank, believing it to be its strongest. The economy was left to one side as the parties squabbled

about managerial competencies.

Now both have unravelled. The economy is slowing down sharply, with the fall in house building applying the

brakes. Ahern's credibility, too, lies in tatters. Once he appeared before the Tribunal we discovered that

 far from assisting it to the best of his ability, Ahern's tactics had been to frustrate it. He co-operated,

but he did not volunteer information. His attitude has never changed: he resents the intrusion into his

private life, refuses to accept that he did anything wrong by accepting tens of thousands of pounds from

friends and businessmen, and refuses to accept that he would never have become Taoiseach had he not

hidden the truth for the best part of a decade.

His latest election "victory" is as tarnished as his previous two. On none of the occasions on which he has

stood before the people as a potential taoiseach has he thought it necessary to tell them the whole truth

 about his peculiar lifestyle choices in the early 1990s.

The Irish Times poll is a timely reminder that, no matter what Ahern's cheerleaders want you and him to

 believe, the majority of people do believe that his finances are a legitimate and important political issue,

 and the majority do not believe that he has told the full story. The more they hear, the more concern they express.

Ahern should be embarrassed, but Ahern does not do embarrassment. If he did, he would not have

pocketed last week's grotesque pay increase and would not have justified it with the casual arrogance that

is his government's hallmark.

 

Ahern has always set low standards, both for himself and for his cabinet ministers, and nothing has changed.

Accountability and responsibility are meaningless concepts, just as the notion of ethical standards in

government has been treated as a joke. It is still difficult to believe that Ahern appointed Liam Lawlor to

preside over parliamentary ethics, but he did.

So it should hardly come as shock when Ahern tells the Dail that he will not sack Noel Dempsey, his Minister

for Transport, even if he fails to meet his deadline of next June for implementing new laws designed to

take unlicensed drivers off our roads.

Hardly a shock, either, that Dempsey's initial attempt to clean up the nonsense of the provisional licence

system should explode in his face.

It was Dempsey, too, who asked a civil servant to write a report on her own failings as a civil servant (she

 cleared herself, so that's alright) and it was the unfortunate Dempsey who presided over the weeks of

spinelessness that passed for government decision-making over Aer Lingus' decision to abandon its routes

 from Shannon to Heathrow.

Dempsey, however, is not the real problem. Pick any Fianna Fail cabinet minister and you will find arrogance,

incompetence or simple inertia. Dempsey's mistake is that he occasionally tries to do something, and so

inevitably gets into trouble. He could choose to be a Micheal Martin, and do absolutely nothing -- a lesson

that Martin Cullen has learned.

Martin was an uncontroversial minister for health because he did not try to reform the health service. He

was happy to throw money at it, to whistle up grandiose 10-year plans and then retreat into silence. His sole

contribution was to ban smoking -- a good move, but no compensation for failing to do the day job.

All of this was known last May, and yet Martin's reward was emphatic endorsement from his electorate,

not rejection. So what should he learn from that? Do nothing and smile for the cameras, or do something and

 suffer?

Popular discord with this government, therefore, is meaningless. Twice we have re-elected Fianna Fail-led

 governments, even though we knew that the previous one had not been any good.

We know that we will moan about them for the next few years, but when it comes to the next election,

chances are we'll put them back in power so long as the economy has recovered. Fine Gael and Labour must

 shoulder some of the blame for failing to first choose and then stick with credible leaders, but the real

responsibility for the waste of any public money during the previous administration and more specifically

during this one rests with all those who voted for Fianna Fail in the full knowledge of what it had wasted

over the previous ten years. You get what you vote for, and if you reward bad behaviour you are unlikely to

 encourage good behaviour.

The poll will, however, have some impact on internal Fianna Fail politics. Mischievously the Irish Times

revealed that Brian Cowen's satisfaction rating is well ahead of Ahern's, though we do not know whether it

 has fallen sharply because it is the first time that the question has been asked.

Cowen is the anointed successor when Ahern is pushed out before the next election, as pushed out he most

certainly will be. No leader gets to choose the perfect moment to retire and Ahern will be no different.

Once he said that he would not lead his party into the next election, Ahern became a lame duck taoiseach

 who can only be a liability to his party. He cannot reshuffle his cabinet with any authority and he cannot

 command the loyalty of his ministers because they must now look elsewhere for future advancement.

He can gladhand, but he cannot command. The responsibility to drag our economy back to health rests with

 Cowen and Ahern is of no help unless he recognises that he has nothing left to lose. Freed of the

requirement to be popular, Ahern could start to take tough decisions and not care about the fall out, but to

 do that requires him to step out of his carefully constructed character. He will not, and he will damage his

party and our economy by his failure.

His ending will not be pretty and he will not understand why, because Ahern is so trapped in his own world that he can no longer understand the real one.

 

 

Sunday March 16 2008

We're off to hell in a handcart, says the Economic and Social Research Institute. Growth this year will be

 the lowest for 20 years, the rate of inflation is rising, the public finances are imploding, employment

growth is flat and the dole queues will be lengthening.

 Crisis, what crisis? The US banking system is gripped by its greatest crisis in years, with the Federal

Reserve forced to prop up Bear Stearns, the giant Wall Street investment bank. The stock markets are

 tumbling and Ireland's economy is, at best, in danger, but Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen see no need for

immediate action.

Their calmness in the face of such potential difficulties would be admirable, if they were prepared to

govern with the steady resolve that their words suggest, but in the very same interview in which Mr Ahern

 talks down the threats to the Irish economy, he lets slip a sentence that betrays the hollowness of his

words.

"We have to control public spending," he says, "and we've set that in our book of estimates and in the

budget process." This, from Mr Ahern, is more than just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense.

His governments have displayed, year after a year, a remarkable ability to spend the taxpayers' money

profligately, but his governments have shown no appetite for restraint or control.

In the two years, before the last general election, day-to-day government spending soared by 25 per cent.

 This year it will rise by more than 8 per cent and there is absolutely no sign of that rate slowing down. Mr

Ahern has created a monstrous public bureaucracy that has a voracious appetite for our cash. He has

swollen the numbers of public servants, particularly in the months ahead of a general election, and he has

 showered cash on them.

Simultaneously, of course, he has singularly failed to secure any measurable or meaningful improvements in

 efficiency or productivity. The result, after 11 years of largesse, is that the Irish economy's ability to

 withstand a nasty combination of internal and external shocks has been reduced, not enhanced, by Mr

 Ahern's governments.

There is no sign of that profligacy changing. The Taoiseach leads his cabinet into the next round of national

wage talks with a double digit pay increase in his back pocket -- an act of such stupidity that it defies

 rational explanation. He calls for wage restraint, and is met by laughter.

Mr Cowen, the tough-talking finance minister who, for the moment, stands unopposed as Mr Ahern's

anointed successor, promises reform, but he, too, fails to deliver.

In his budget speech last December, Mr Cowen made much of his "efficiency review" of each government

department.

By March 1 this year, he told us, each department would have provided the department of finance with a

detailed plan for reducing its costs, and the head of each department would then face a grilling on those

plans from the Oireachtas committees.

Almost two weeks after the deadline has passed, and what news of the efficiency review? The department

 of finance reports that some departments have complied with the deadline and some have not. It cannot

tell us which departments have listened to Mr Cowen, and which ones have ignored his deadline, but it

 assures us that all departments will have furnished their savings plans before too long.

It is hardly an auspicious start, and it does not suggest that Mr Cowen has been matching his words with

action. Having promised a review and having set a deadline, it is not unreasonable to expect that Mr Cowen

and his finance mandarins would have policed the review process and ensured that every department of

 government was trawling through its expenditure in a determined hunt for savings. The efficiency review

 was also meant to herald a much needed and long-awaited bonfire of pointless or overlapping government

 agencies, yet that too will have to wait.

The uncomfortable truth is that this government has no appetite for reform and no concept of how to

deliver value for the taxpayers' money. It knows the words, and can speak them with conviction, but

delivery is not on the agenda.

For Mr Cowen and Mr Ahern there is but one priority, and it has nothing to do with running the country or

ensuring long-term economic prosperity. Their objective is much narrower than that: they want to win

elections.

The only cycle that matters to Mr Ahern, and now Mr Cowen, is not the economic cycle, but the political

 cycle. Slowdowns, no matter how dangerous, that happen in the early years of a new government do not

matter. The key years are the two that precede a general election, and those are the years when

government spending soars.

It is cynical, but very effective. Economic policy becomes an extension of party policy, and it is used to

 maximise partly political advantage. The people can see it happening, but they fall for it every time.

Remember, if you can, the anger that followed Mr Ahern's 2002 electoral triumph. Charlie McCreevy, the

 then finance minister, started to rein in spending almost before the last vote had been counted because

the economic outlook was in reality much darker than Fianna Fail had pretended in the pre-election months.

We screamed that we had been conned and that we would not forget, yet five years later, we enjoyed a

reprise performance from Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen. Opinion polls taken before the last election show that a

 majority trusted Mr Ahern with the economy. It is accepted that it was the opposition parties' failure to

 challenge him effectively on his economic credibility that allowed the Taoiseach to claim an unlikely electoral victory.

His claims of economic competence were as phoney then as they are now, but when the going is good it is

 relatively easy to claim the credit. Now that the international outlook is bleak, Mr Ahern blames our

 current difficulties on the "globally-integrated economy" and accepts no responsibility for his failure to

make this country more resilient in the face of external tremors. He takes credit for the boom, but washes

 his hands of the downturn.

Mr Ahern cannot dictate terms to the foreign exchange markets, but he can take responsibility for making

this economy more competitive by reforming the public sector. Yet he stumbles at the smallest of hurdles:

the break-up of the ESB is put on hold, rather than pushed through with urgency; competition on something

 as simple as bus routes is avoided; the much vaunted National Development Plan progresses without any

 rigorous or believable audit of value. His ministers still talk of how much they have spent, rather than about

 the improved services they have delivered.

The same complacency that makes him believe that Mr Cowen's budget was a model of economic

 management infects his entire government, and that complacency means that we sleepwalk into a much

 more difficult downturn than would otherwise be necessary. They are so wedded to the party demands of

the political cycle that they ignore the perils of the economic cycle, and they still refuse to force through

 the reforms they talk about -- like the trumpeted efficiency review.

If we are going to hell in a handcart, then Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen are the cart-horses, pulling us steadily

 into a bleak few years.

 

Ahern V Kenny.A lost battle.

"We have an obscene situation where many families and individuals are suffering serious financial difficulties because they are forced to buy clean water due to the incompetence of the Irish government and city bureaucrats." Dette McLoughlin, Free Safe Water Group, Galway.

"This is not the only national monument that has been discovered in this section of motorway - it is simply the only one that the roads authorities have so far recognised." Julietta Clancy, Meath Archaeological and Historical Society.

"How can it be said that this type of money would be better off in the hands of Veronica Guerin's killers?" Luke Flanagan, campaigner against the criminalistion of cannabis use.

Alan Ruddock wrote in May 2007:

"LESS than two weeks to go, and the election campaign has yet to ignite. Bertie Ahern's historical trousering of cash from "friends and businessmen" is, we are told by the politicians, not an issue (even though half the electorate think it's a serious issue). So, despite the faux drama of last weekend's wobble by the Progressive Democrats, the campaign just trundles along, with each day bringing a series of cheesy photo-opportunities, tame policy initiatives and legacy moment grandstanding on Northern Ireland from Ahern, while the polls point to an inconclusive result.

Focus on the real issues, all parties tell us, and let the people decide. What are those real issues? Health, education, crime and, possibly, quality of life, they say. Oh, and the economy. And the real differences between the main opposing parties are what, precisely? Hand on heart, can anyone say with absolute certainty that they will vote for Fianna Fail or Fine Gael or Labour because of some policy initiative that will transform our schools, or reform our health service, or eliminate anti-social behaviour and drug related gang crime?

Despite all the protestations about policies and "real" issues, the only issues in this election are the credibility and character of the two candidates for Taoiseach. Like it or not, this is a presidential campaign which offers a choice between two men, not between two competing ideologies, or even two competing visions of the future. We must choose Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny: the known known or the known unknown.

We must visualise Kenny as Taoiseach, factor in the instant gravitas that comes with office, and decide whether he has what it takes to lead a government through a potentially tricky five years. Strange as it may sound, we must also perform the same exercise with Ahern, because he has not had to deal with difficult times for the majority of his years in power.

Which of the two men is best placed to quell unrest in the public service, yet at the same time drive through the essential reforms to make it more efficient? Which man will be tougher on crime, but equally trusted not to destroy our civil liberties in the process? And which of them has the strength of character to make difficult and unpopular decisions in the broader national interest?

Depressingly, the indications are that both will fail any critical test. Ahern is a serial avoider of difficult decisions, and it has been his timidity and fear of confrontation that has created the bloated and unreformed colossus that masquerades as our "public service" sector. Ahern's fear of tough decisions has also meant that he fails on basic legislative duties, too. Promised and essential legislation to deal with the fall-out from our abortion referenda has been ducked for five years; bad laws on statutory rape survive because he could not bring himself to call a referendum; libel laws remain unreformed, despite any number of false starts.

The list of legislative failure rooted in political cowardice is long and ignominious. Kenny, though, promises more of the same, and has already assured the Irish Catholic that he, too, will consciously avoid his democratic duty and will fail to legislate on abortion. If he is prepared to ignore abortion, then you can be sure that he will find plenty more tough decisions to avoid. Oh brave new world. Kenny thinks that the way to resolve the nurses dispute is to bring in an outside expert and fudge it a bit.

Ahern, too, favours international mediation and long-fingered fudging. Both mouth platitudes about smaller class sizes or shorter waiting lists, both pay homage to social partnership and benchmarking, both espouse lower taxes (if conditions allow, mind) and both subscribe to the least rigorous political philosophy of our age: try, at all times, to be all things to all people and above all, offend no one.

Two men, two similarly unchallenging views of the world, one not so simple choice. Both will have to form a government with one or more of the smaller parties, so who is better suited to controlling the inherent silliness of the Greens, if they have to be bolted on to a coalition with the Labour party for Kenny, or taken as the sole partners in government by Ahern?

Who can be better trusted to form a lasting government with Pat Rabbitte's Labour party - and forget all the pre-election bluster about a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition not being a possibility under Rabbitte. If the first vote for Taoiseach fails to deliver a majority for either candidate after the election, then all bets will be off.

NO matter how you cut it, this election reduces to that most straightforward of choices: Ahern or Kenny. To describe this campaign as little more than a beauty contest between two leaders may seem like a statement of the obvious to some and an over simplification to others, but in the absence of clear water of any colour between the policies of either major party, what is left but a contest between leaders?

This week's televised debate between the two men will, therefore, be the defining moment of the campaign. It is taking place far earlier than last time, and its impact will be far more dramatic if either leader wins a decisive victory.

Fianna Fail's willingness to go for an early debate suggests a realisation that things are getting too close for comfort and that Ahern needs a head-to-head victory to give his party momentum for the last week. For Kenny, a draw may be enough to prove to the doubters that he has what it takes to do no worse a job than Ahern, but a humbling defeat on the intricacies of economic policy, or the subtleties of industrial relations, will be fatal.

The debate is Kenny's only opportunity to demonstrate that he can be Taoiseach, and he will have to move well beyond the wooden gravitas of the past few years if he is to make any impact. And the audience will be huge.

The last debate, between Ahern and Michael Noonan, was the top-rated programme of 2002 - an astonishing result in a World Cup year of extraordinary drama (the debate drew more viewers than the interview with Roy Keane), and in the context of an election that lacked any drama. This year's debate should draw even more people to their TV screens, and it will be decisive.

Ahern starts with a massive advantage. He has a voracious appetite for detail, and despite his well-known stumblings with the English language, he has a well-polished presence on the small screen that Kenny lacks. Ahern is both known and liked, while Kenny, after five years in charge, remains a mystery to many. Affable, certainly, but unproven,untested and strangely unknown. Policies are all but squared off between the parties, and the front benches are marked off too. The anonymity of the Fine Gael spokesmen is surely matched by the all-too familiar faces in Fianna Fail - you may doubt Fine Gael's strength in depth, but do you really want to see Martin Cullen, Dick Roche or Micheal Martin smarming their way through another five years?

Tough choice.

So it comes down to the style, character and credibility of the two leaders. And that is why Kenny's refusal to seize on Ahern's finances and pursue him to the bitter end on the inconsistencies of his initial explanations remains baffling. The story of how Ahern accepted secret donations and then stumbled on his initial explanations and excuses goes to the core of his character and credibility.

It tells us about his sense of morality - he thinks he did nothing wrong - and it sits within the context of a man who appointed Ray Burke to high office when he should have known better, and a man who thought that Liam Lawlor was the ideal candidate to head a Dail committee on ethics.

It points, too, to a morality that decrees that the reasoning behind benchmarking awards should be kept secret (the genesis of the current nurses dispute) and that compromise, however distasteful, should be a government's first priority. Yet Kenny fights shy of attack, not capitalising on Ahern's obvious discomfort over his finances to highlight why the story matters, and why it reveals so much about the flaws that have blighted Ahern's performance as Taoiseach.

If Kenny cannot find the courage to land those punches in this week's debate he will be consigning himself to the backbenches. This is a fight between two men, and there's no more time for polite parrying. Kenny needs to wound, and he needs to wound with style.

His message must be that there is a better, cleaner and more effective way to govern and that Ahern, far from being a great asset to this country, compromises its potential by his own timidity and amorality.

Ahern's long-awaited statement on his finances may give Kenny the opportunity. It is up to him, whether he seizes it and makes a weapon from it, or chooses instead to play safe and swap sound bytes. Choices and decisions: first for Kenny, then for the rest of us. If Kenny makes the wrong ones he will find that, come the second vote for Taoiseach (after the first vote produces no clear winner), his erstwhile Labour partners in the alternative government will be lining up opposite him on the real government benches."

Alan Ruddock

 Alan Ruddock
Sunday June 17 2007

"FOR the moment, let us play along with the prevailing spin. This is a renewed and refreshed government, a rainbow coalition that comes to the job with a spring in its step and hope in its heart.

Bertie Ahern, the remarkable three-in-a-row Taoiseach, has done what he does best by persuading a disparate group of independents, PDs and Greens to put aside their differences and form common purpose. His astute political brain recognised the need for renewal, so he sought out the Greens and persuaded them to join and invigorate his crusade for a better Ireland, even though he did not need their votes to become Taoiseach.

He has, too, thrown down the gauntlet to his newest partners by giving them what they desired: responsibility for energy policy, the environment, local government and natural resources. No more whingeing, no more protest politics, no more grandstanding from the opposition benches about a government's moral responsibility to future generations: for the Greens it is now about delivery.

In similar vein he leaves the health service in Mary Harney's control, suggesting that reform of sorts will continue. And the beauty of Ahern's numbers game is that if either of his partners goes too far, he can, reluctantly, wave them goodbye. If the unions kick up too much of a stink about Harney's reforms, don't be surprised if Ahern intervenes to smooth things out, stymie reform and neuter his minister. Just as any over exuberance from Eamon Ryan, the new minister for energy, will be quashed if it inconveniences the trade unions at the ESB.

The three non-Fianna Fail ministers will have to tread warily (a new experience for Harney, but one forced on her by the dramatically changed circumstances of her involvement in this government), and yet they will have to deliver real change for their own supporters. It will be an extremely difficult balancing act and for the two Green Party ministers an even steeper learning curve. But, for the moment, let us continue in positive mode.

The Green's can be lampooned for negotiating so long and so hard to win so little; they can be lampooned too for claiming throughout those negotiations that policy was all that mattered and government formation was secondary, but the party of protest has emerged from it all with the portfolios it coveted.

It has a paid a price for those two seats at the cabinet table - losing its leader, its credibility on the left and its place beside the loonier fringes of the anti-capitalist groups - but it can argue that it was a price well worth paying.

The party has given itself a chance to prove that it can make a difference, and it has that chance in a government that is inherently conservative and risk-averse.

Ryan and John Gormley, the new minister for the environment, will not be able to indulge flights of fancy or loose experiments because Fianna Fail will not allow it. Everything they propose will have to be examined, and re-examined, pulled, prodded and probed before it is unleashed. Their future, and their party's future, depends on the credibility of their time in office. If they can deliver on their promise and make a difference - without unduly disrupting the comfort zone of the middle classes - then they may be able to move the Greens' support base from the political fringe to the mainstream.

So in this brave new world, what else can we expect from Ahern's rainbow? That, I'm afraid, is where the positive spin unravels. Ahern's sizeable Dail majority and collection of new partners has come at minimum cost to him and signals no fundamental change of direction from this government. He has had to give away one extra Cabinet seat to his partners along with 'milluns' of the taxpayers' money (not Fianna Fail's money, mind, to secure a vote for Ahern, but yours and mine).

And that's it. There have been no major concessions, no policy U-turns, no heads delivered on plates. Dick Roche, the former minister of the environment, is the only loser from the previous Cabinet but he will not be deprived of the pleasure of hearing himself speak because he has been compensated with a junior minister's role - Minister for Europe - that has all the opportunity for media exposure and none of the responsibility of actually doing anything that matters.

True, John O'Donoghue did not look delighted by his new role as Dail referee, but he will get used to it. Apart from those minor tinkerings, a few positional shifts and the promotion of Brian Lenihan from quasi-minister to the real McCoy at Justice, it was hardly earth-shattering. And surviving unscathed, of course, were the duffers of the previous government - Martin Cullen, Micheal Martin and Eamonn O Cuiv (there really is a full-time minister called O Cuiv, though few outside the west of Ireland might have noticed).

Ahern may introduce some new faces in the junior ranks, but they will be window dressing and related to geography and internal party politics, not talent.

The Cabinet indicates the direction of government, and Ahern believes that everything about the last government was just fine so there is no need to change direction. The economy may be at risk, but the remedy will be more of the same: more social partnership, more benchmarking pay awards, more faffing about, even though the circumstances have changed.

Reform was mentioned in the Dail on Thursday, but only by Richard Bruton of Fine Gael. The government will continue to throw money at problems, and will just hope that the money keeps coming in. It will continue spending, and will hope that its largesse will keep the economy primed. On social issues, what chance is there of this new government legislating for the fallout from the abortion referenda? Will Brian Lenihan push ahead with a simple referendum to restore adequate protection for child rape victims, or will he continue with the fudge and nonsense of a broadly-based referendum on children's rights?

There will, of course, be some action from this government. The media can expect a backlash from its treatment of Ahern's peculiar personal financial arrangements in the Nineties and it would not be a shock if one of Lenihan's earlier acts was to breathe fresh life into privacy legislation and huff and puff a bit more about the need for tighter press regulation. The government may also take some swipes at the pesky Mahon tribunal, which still threatens to unravel Ahern's career even if his new partners in government have decided to ignore the Taoiseach's stumbling and inconsistent explanations of why and how he received so much cash in the early Nineties.

Their attitude contrasts sharply with Trevor Sargent's decision to resign as Green party leader, and creates a peculiar two-tiered Green morality. Sargent applied one, stringent, law to himself in a rare display (from an Irish politician) of integrity and honesty and another, far looser, law to Ahern. Harney, meanwhile, appears to have conveniently forgotten that ethics and principles were part of the PD's DNA. It is a confusing mix of integrity and political calculation, and it is not healthy.

And lurking unpleasantly beneath the surface of this new government are the deals - still secret - that have been cut with the independents to secure their support.

How much public money has been promised to buy power for Fianna Fail? And, to borrow Brian Cowen's attack on the opposition parties during the election, who will be the losers? What projects will be shelved so that Jackie Healy Rae's pet demands can be met? Just as we can wonder, as Cowen most surely would have, what other department has lost €350m so that the Green's demand on education can be met. Fewer hospital beds next year? Fewer gardai?

The deals with the independents reveal the shabbiness of Ahern's politics and fatally undermine the spin that this new government is all about stability and fresh thinking. The independents have been bought as an insurance policy against either the PDs or the Greens stepping out of line, and they bring nothing but the triumph of the parish pump over the national interest. They are Ahern's minders, at our expense, and their presence diminishes the government and reduces its potential for vitality.

A fresh start? Spin another one. This government could be even worse than the last, with the disparate collection of parties and independents nullifying any prospect of reform or tough thinking, and its success measured by its stickability and not its achievements.

Harney's pace of reform in health is likely to be slower, not faster, as she looks over her shoulder for the first time, vulnerable to Fianna Fail backbenchers and the Greens. Ryan and Gormley, too, will be hemmed in by their partners and by the sheer scale of the portfolios they have been given. They will try, but progress will be slow and success very uncertain. As for the rest of the Fianna Fail ministers, they will do what they did the last time and the time before: not very much. "

- Alan Ruddock

Jockeying for power, 2007

Sunday June 03 2007

WHILE Bertie Ahern conducts his dance macabre with the Independents, flirts with the Greens and casts a covetous look at the Labour Party, the economy continues to fray. Credit Suisse believes that Ireland's rate of growth will halve this year to just 3 pc, well below the forecasts used by all the political parties when they were preparing their election manifestos, and significantly below the Government's own estimate for this year. Dell,the computer giant, announces that it is going to cut hundreds of jobs in Ireland, the latest in a growing list of international companies to trim back their Irish operations. Official statistics show that unemployment is rising and that the number of people made redundant this year is sharply higher than a year ago.

Property prices are falling, not rising, and there are more interest rate increases still to come. And all of this a week after a general election in which the people were told that everything in the economy was rosy, growth was assured and the money for fixing all our problems would continue to roll effortlessly into the Government's coffers. Instead, however, the problems are mounting.

The scale of the difficulties facing whatever government Ahern (or, however implausibly, Enda Kenny) cobbles together was underscored, too, by the news that the HSE thinks that it is acceptable to set a 12-hour target for getting people into a hospital bed from an Accident and Emergency Unit.

Even worse, this branch of the public service sits on its report for so long that the key target contained in it - that by February this year people should only have had to wait six hours - is not only unachievable, but is out of date.

But does any of this matter to Ahern, or to those who would step into government with him? As they squabble over the baubles of office and the goodies that can be thrown at individual constituencies, who is actually preparing for five tough years during which tough decisions will have to be taken? Who is negotiating about the level of benchmarking awards or reform of the public service? Who is demanding a reduction in stealth taxes as the price of their support, rather than a ministerial car? 

The answer, clearly, is no one. Once again our politics is all about the game and not about the business of using power to make the country a better place. We know, with depressing certainty, that Ahern is calculating ministerial seats, not policies, when he negotiates with Independents and the smaller parties and we know too that if he does get toform a cabinet, his choice of ministers will be dictated by geography and party advantage, not by ability or suitability.

It is a shoddy way to run a country but he has got away with it for a decade and, as his supporters never tire of telling us, the people have once again endorsed him. Or almost. Despite those protestations of endorsement, if Ahern had been returned by popular acclaim we would now have a government in waiting rather than another week of horse-trading, and Kenny would have conceded defeat. Yet Kenny clings grimly to the hope that he can patch together a coalition of the unlikely, gambling that the still unfolding drama of the Mahon Tribunal will unravel Ahern's plans and condemn his efforts to failure.

It is, for the moment at least, a forlorn hope. Not because the evidence from the tribunal is not damning,  because the bar on ethical standards has already been set so low by Ahern's most likely partners that is hard to imagine what would cause them to walk away from him.

The Progressive Democrats wobbled under the leadership of Michael McDowell, but they still stuck by Ahern despite the inconsistencies in his stories, and despite the simple fact that as a serving minister he had accepted large sums of cash from a motley collection of 'friends and businessmen'.

Last week it emerged that there were yet more apparent inconsistencies in his explanations, but the PDs were unconcerned. They also stayed silent as Ahern, through his lawyer, launched a remarkable attack on the tribunal. His tactics are transparent - Ahern wants to discredit and undermine the tribunal to such an extent that its findings are dismissed or, even better, it falls apart - and he wants to divert attention away from his own very peculiar financial arrangements in the 1990s.

He wants us to believe that he is a victim in all of this, a good man hounded by enemies unnamed who want to do him down and who leaked tribunal documents to scupper his chances of re-election.

Yet a cold analysis of what has happened would suggest that the leaking of the tribunal's investigations has been to Ahern's benefit: if last week's opening statement by Des O'Neill, the tribunal's barrister, had remained secret until the moment the words fell from his mouth, Ahern's political career would lie in tatters this weekend. Instead, he is preparing for a third term as Taoiseach because the drip-feed of leaks so conditioned and confused the public that all the tribunal's revelations are now blurred by boredom, and Ahern walks free of scrutiny and accountability from his political peers.

And so the negotiations to form a new government continue and the great game gathers pace. We speculate about Ahern's intentions - is he really waiting to strike a deal with the Labour party? Could he stomach coalition with the Greens? Has he already stitched up a deal with the Independents? - and ignore the mounting evidence from Mahon and from the economy. We ignore, too, the calibre of the Independents who may be so integral to Ahern's new government.

The bar on ethical standards has fallen so low that no eyebrows are raised at the prospect of Beverley Flynn, who lost her libel case against RTE, was drummed out of her own party and who has yet to pay her debts, playing a pivotal role in Ahern's new team. No dissenting voices are heard about Michael Lowry, a disgraced former minister, getting his pound of flesh for signing on for five years. Should Flynn and Lowry really berewarded exponentially simplybecause they lend support to Ahern?

It is an ignominious process, one where numbers are the only things that matter and power is the only objective. Ahern, of course, is not alone in ignoring the smell: Kenny, too, must throw blandishments in front of people of who do not deserve them if he is to sustain his run for Taoiseach.

What policies that exist are also, of course, thrown out the window as compromises are struck. The co-location of public and private hospitals may be a core PD policy, but for how long? Ethics in public life may matter to the Greens, but not all that much if power is on offer. The use of Shannon Airport by the US military may trouble Finian McGrath's conscience, but it will not be a deal-breaker.

From it all a government will emerge, but it will not be stable and it will not be good. No matter who joins forces with Ahern, the foundations will be flawed because the compromises - on ethics, policy, beliefs and plain morality - will have been so severe.

It promises to be a very bumpy ride, and it could not come at worse time. The economy is far from recession, but it is also far from the robust health that it enjoyed for the past 10 years. Growth is slowing, jobs are being lost and past failures to deal with the rising costs of this economy are beginning to bite.  

Ahern, wounded and diminished, cannot lead a revival or deliver reform, yet because his own party stick by him and the rest dance along he will probably win the political game. If he does, we all be the losers.

- Alan Ruddock