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No Time to Swim in the Swamp

Posted on: October 24th, 2010

LAST Monday morning, opposition big shots headed for the Department of Finance to examine the nation’s books. The Fine Gael team had a spring in its step, chests out, every inch the government-in-waiting.

They savoured the moment, posed for a few photographs and entered the normally forbidden city. On Monday afternoon, they emerged, spooked. They gave the impression that they were sorry they had touched the nation’s corpse. Could they be infected?

On Tuesday, the party leaders were back in their comfort zone, shouting at each other across the floor of the Dail. Opposition chiefs were laying the ground for their exit from talks aimed at agreeing a four-year plan with the Government.

On Wednesday afternoon, they were fulfilling their commitments to token talks as Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and John Gormley locked horns in the quiet comfort of the Taoiseach’s office in Merrion Street. This was the phoney peace; all for the optics.

On Wednesday evening, the initiative was dead. The opposition parties had fled for the exit. It was back to business as usual; a cynical exercise completed.

Will the real Taoiseach , the real Enda Kenny, the real Eamon Gilmore and the real John Gormley please stand up?

Perhaps our four main political leaders were fighting a passionate battle about how to save Ireland when they met on Wednesday afternoon, all acting in the national interest, of course.

No one believes that. No cameras were allowed into the private meeting, so we will never know for certain what happened. Grandstanding was not needed.

Reliable flies on the departmental wall that day report that each party leader’s eyes were nervously fixed on all the others, rather than on the small print in the documentation. Each was scouring the discussions in search of nuances, political openings, even potential traps.

The crisis in Ireland’s economy was merely a vehicle for jockeying for priority in popular affections. A four-year programme was miles from their minds. Rather, a four-month outlook and a general election were the limits of their vision.

Brian Cowen’s strategy in the consensus game was pretty simple. He wanted to entice the opposition leaders into the economic quagmire of his making. Once they were caught flailing around in the swamp, they would have to make proposals for draining it. Once they had made their suggestions, they would begin to feel the cold wrath of unpopularity. And then Cowen would be able to rubbish them.

While neither of the two opposition leaders wants to offer a crumb of comfort to Cowen, their real enemy is closer to home. Gilmore and Kenny have long ago taken their eyes off the Taoiseach. They batter him in public but watch each other in private.

The hungry enemy within is deadlier than the wounded Taoiseach without.

Sadly, the fate of the country was never high on the agenda in the phantom talks. At stake was who will be Taoiseach. Enda and Eamon are playing out a deadly game. Far from being coalition partners in waiting, Enda and Eamon are vigilant rivals in opposition.

It is a complicated business, pretending to bury party differences in the national interest. All four were at it. It is known as the consensus game.

Both opposition leaders fear being blamed by voters for damaging the national interest by refusing to support Ireland in her hour of need.

Both fear that the global investment community will dump on them for causing a loss of confidence in Ireland. Down the road, they fear being dismissed as a rag bag of amateurs, only to be confronted by a savage wave of Irish bond sales the day they arrive in Merrion Street. They must not be seen as spoilers, either by the electorate or the markets.

No party leader can afford to see Ireland’s bond rates spiking the day that he upends the talks. The Irish electorate could easily punish anyone if, in the pursuit of power, he has hurt the economy.

If bond traders lose confidence in us after abortive talks and our cost of borrowing rises, the message will not be lost on voters. We all understand that higher borrowing costs mean higher taxes and more cuts in services.

The consensus game is not dull, it is dynamite. On balance, Cowen is ahead on points. Once the Fine Gael and Labour front benchers had entered the department of finance, they were on the back foot. The waiting media will not be satisfied until those who aspire to office have revealed their own plans to cut spending and raise taxes.

For the next six weeks, leading up to the Budget on December 7, opposition leaders will come under increasing pressure to spell out their alternative budgets.

For the first time in months, the initial skirmish was a narrow win for Cowen. He will score a surprise tactical victory if it becomes a game of competitive cuts.

Meanwhile, what awaits the economy, the corpse that the opposition parties feared to touch? While the parties playact, Budget day beckons.

Thankfully, one cabinet member was not posturing last week. Offstage, the only independent minister dropped a subtle clanger in her colleagues’ laps.

Mary Harney, Minister for Health, a politician without ambition (or a snowball’s chance in hell of further high office), gently dropped a sacred cow in the manure business.

Admitting that her department would be cutting spending by €1bn, Harney sent a brave message of truth to her colleagues. Not a red cent of the €1bn could come from pay. The pay deal struck at Croke Park guaranteeing no further wage reductions — in return for changes in work practices — had tied her hands. Harney then pointed out that pay accounted for 70 per cent of health spending.

So her contribution to the cuts could only come from the other 30 per cent, the part spent on essential services. Due to the deal, no slackers, no pen-pushers, nor high-living bureaucrats will see their pay cheques reduced. Patients, the people in the front line, will suffer instead. It was chilling stuff.

Harney pointed the finger at the Croke Park deal. She said nothing overtly critical because it was a cabinet decision, but her fingering of its role has refreshingly challenged all party leaders to either scrap it or plead inability to pay.

It is impossible to see Enda and Eamon uniting with Cowen and Gormley to scrap the pay deal, now a luxury that Ireland cannot afford. Harney alone has identified a problem. She and Brian Lenihan are the only ministers with the bottle to unravel the ill-considered agreement.

Besides, the Croke Park deal is dying. The public service unions have failed to deliver their side of the bargain. The promised efficiencies have not materialised. The trade unions, encouraged by the cheerleaders at the top of the civil service, are — as always — dragging their feet.

Brian Lenihan’s Budget should ditch Croke Park. If industrial unrest follows, the nation should tough it out. If the opposition parties exploit strikes or work-to-rules to advance their selfish interests, they will be playing a dangerous game.

There is no earthly reason why Cowen and his cohorts should be re-elected. But we are entitled to expect more from a government-in-waiting than a few actors throwing shapes to pretend that they are intent on reaching an agreement on saving the nation.