Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Wanted: new Taoiseach (don’t all rush at once)

For all the talk of ‘Cowen must go’, no one wants his poisoned chalice job. Not Brian Lenihan — not yet anyway. Let the people decide, says Henry McDonald

Unemployment rates may be climbing, but there is one job in the Republic that no one really wants — well, at least not yet. That is the job of Taoiseach.

Ever since Brian Cowen stumbled and spluttered over his words in a live interview with RTE's Good Morning Ireland programme, there have been rumblings of a backbench rebellion within Fianna Fail.

Cowen stood accused of being worse for wear on the programme, after a long night out with the party faithful at an FF think-over in Galway.

Already-despondent TDs complained that their captain, sailing Ireland through an economic Force 9 gale, was asleep at the wheel, or at the very least a little groggy and bleary-eyed.

There have been calls for an emergency meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party, and even demands from one former minister that his brother Brian Lenihan, might consider taking over at the bridge.

Even some of Cowen's most loyal and steadfast supporters in the Dublin media are losing faith. The columnist, filmmaker, and political strategist Eoghan Harris less than a year ago compared Cowen to Wellington at Waterloo — a man as capable of holding the line and keeping the troops in order as the Iron Duke at the final battle with Napolean.

But Harris now suggests that if Cowen cannot improve his communication skills and convey a few simple truths to the Irish people (the necessity to bring down the deficit by cutting public spending, for example), then he should walk the plank.

All the evidence, at surface level at least, appears to suggest that a mutiny is brewing on the ship, with the crew already nominating the Irish Finance Minister as the new captain.

The problem, however, for the would-be mutineers is that no one has come forward who is willing to take over at the helm.

Brian Lenihan has explicitly ruled himself out as an alternative Taoiseach, in spite of the pleadings of his younger brother, Conor. Lenihan Snr also stressed that he has much work to do, most |crucially of all to prepare for yet another cost-cutting budget later this autumn.

The finance minister is also charged with the unenviable task of persuading international markets to keep faith in Ireland, and not create a Greek-style |financial crisis.

The last thing he wants is to being forced to take the begging bowl to either the European |Central Bank in Frankfurt, or the International Monetary Fund. In addition to these Herculean tasks, Lenihan can look across the Irish Sea, specifically to the downfall of Gordon Brown as a portent.

The former Prime Minister took over after Tony Blair departed from Downing Street, and after months of hesitation decided against an early General Election that would have given the new premier more legitimacy.

Because Brown bottled the |election, he was always haunted with the charge of being an |unelected prime minister, whom the voters would dump out of |office given the chance. Which is precisely what happened.

Brian Lenihan knows that any change of leadership would inexorably lead to the fall of the current Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition, and its subsequent defeat at the polls.

As the Independents who shore up the current Government have made clear, they would not, and could not, keep an administration alive which had a new Taoiseach, but no new election.

Lenihan is an extremely able, well-liked, and competent politician. He has won enormous sympathy and admiration for battling with pancreatic cancer while he tries to save the |Republic from the economic storm battering it. Yet he must surely look to the tragedy that is Gordon Brown's downfall to realise his time has not yet come.

Unless there are more gaffes or skeletons rattling out of the cupboard over the next few weeks, Cowen might just survive this latest near-mutiny. Fianna Fail strategists admit that they are probably going to endure heavy losses in the next general election, so why let their best, future asset, Brian Lenihan, be tainted as a loser?

Better, then, to let Cowen lead them into the electoral mauling, and then elect Lenihan as leader after Fianna Fail emerges from the wreckage.

Such an arrangement may also suit the two main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour.

Eamon Gilmore, the most popular leader in the state and Labour chief, demands an election be called to clear the air and give the country new leadership. One wonders, however, how many Labour strategists and back-room thinkers agree that now is the time to take over at the bridge. For the perfect economic storm the Republic is sailing through is far from over.

Would a Fine Gael/Labour coalition be able to do anything different with fiscal policy, that would not send the international markers, the EU's bankers, and the IMF into a tailspin? Surely they would rather Fianna Fail did the cutting and the tax-raising rather than them.

They too, privately, must be hoping that Cowen remains at the wheel for the time being, because, after all, the Republic's electorate after 13 years are as tired of Fianna Fail-led governments as the British were of New Labour.

Victory for the Fine Gael-Labour ticket next time around is already assured.

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