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'Here we are again. A global crisis rages and a government clown car is ablaze with a conflagration of its own making'

Lise Hand draws parallels between Fianna Fáil past and present: “It was this lethal combination of incoherence and arrogance which did it for the government in 2011.”

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

THE DEMISE OF the last Fianna Fáil-led government began with Garglegate in a Galway hotel in September 2010.

It staggered on badly wounded through that grimmest of economic winters when the IMF came to town in November, before the coup de grace was delivered early in the new year when it was revealed that in 2008 the newly installed Taoiseach Brian Cowen had played golf and had dinner with Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick just months before the government introduced the hugely controversial bank guarantee.

Few mourned when it came tumbling to a farcical end amid chaotic scenes in the Dáil just over a week later.

It had snatched victory from under the bamboozled noses of Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny
and Labour’s Pat Rabbitte in the summer election of 2007, and had subsequently lurched from crisis to crisis.

The first year was dominated by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s dealings with the Mahon Tribunal; when he resigned in May 2008, the first event presided over by his replacement Brian Cowen was the bumbling loss of the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

Then the property bubble popped with a vengeance, showering the citizenry with dollops of the brown stuff. Unemployment and emigration figures soared as the economy plunged over the cliff-face.

Of course much of the crisis was the result of a global crash, but not all the trouble could be laid at the doors of outsiders, such the tone-deaf decision by cabinet ministers in October 2010 to travel to Farmleigh in a snaking line of gleaming Mercs to discuss what was to be the hairiest of hairshirt Budgets.

We’re All In This Together, and so forth.

But perhaps nothing illuminated the erosion of the government’s credibility more starkly than a week in November 2010.

On the 15th, two government ministers stood on the damp cobbles of the upper yard in Dublin Castle and fielded questions from the media.

For weeks, rumours had been passing around like snuff at a wake that Ireland has lost its fight to stay financially afloat and was about to enter a bailout programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Everybody was scared, angry and confused, no-one knew what was going on. The markets were starting to panic, concern was mounting in Brussels. Even the dogs on the street were barking the letters I, M and F.

But in Dublin Castle, Transport Minster Noel Dempsey and Justice Minister Dermot Ahern flatly dismissed that the country was staring into the abyss.

“In relation to the overall situation, we said before that Ireland is fully funded until mid-2011 and we’re very happy that we’re in that situation,” declared Ahern, as beside him, his cabinet colleague nodded vigorously in agreement, bringing to mind a spring-headed toy dog in a car’s back window.

90204593 Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Three days later, the governor of the Central Bank could stand the turmoil no longer. Fearing a run on Irish banks, Patrick Honohan picked up the phone to Morning Ireland and went live on air. A bailout, he told a listening nation, was imminent.

The expectation is that negotiations will be effective and a loan will be made available and drawn down as necessary.”

The government – Finance Minister Brian Lenihan in particular – was fit to be tied. But did Honohan’s revelation send the nation into a gibbering tailspin? In fact, it had the opposite effect.

People were relieved that finally someone had told them the unvarnished truth in plainspoken language. A bailout of “tens of billions” was “desirable”, Honohan explained, to recapitalise the banking system and soothe the nerves of jittery investors.

To be fair to ministers Dempsey and Ahern, they hadn’t engaged in any sort of cynical cover-up of talks between the government and the IMF. The pair had been relying on information provided to the latter by the finance minister earlier that morning.

But alas for our heroes, a cagey Lenihan had only provided them with snippets rather than the full picture.

This miscommunication within the cabinet spoke volumes; but the incident also underlined the government’s abject inability to communicate with a rattled country as the crisis deepened.

At a time of peril, there is nothing more unsettling to the electorate than a ship of state which appears to be foundering in stormy seas while the officers bicker amongst themselves on the poop-deck.

Ten years on, and here we are again. Once more as a global crisis rages, a government clown car is ablaze with a conflagration largely of its own making.

It’s just under eight weeks - eight weeks – since Micheál Martin took over the reins of power, only to find himself astride a bucking bronco. It’s been a non-stop rodeo, from the opening furore over his cabinet picks, to the sacking of his first Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen, the confusion over the Green List countries, the spectacularly muddled messaging over Covid-19 strictures and now this morning, the resignation of his second Agriculture Minister, Dara Calleary.

Understandably, the public mood has soured and the sense of meitheal is withering in the face of repeated displays of cock-eyed incompetence and tin-eared arrogance. Not all of it government-related to be fair, given the widespread rage over the ‘brunch’ in Berlin D2 and over the now-departed Bord Fáilte chairman’s holibobs in Italy.

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach and the Health Minister Stephen Donnelly held a press conference to outline new restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus. But they displayed all the surefooted equipoise of a pair of three-legged elephants ascending a glacier in a blizzard.

Afterwards the ghost of Patrick Honohan’s famous intervention drifted centre-stage. Into the morass of incoherence stepped acting CMO, Ronan Glynn who released a video to “clarify” the thinking behind the ramping up of restrictions.

The five-minute explainer was indeed clear, concise and offered the solid figures and facts behind the decisions. It did what senior members of government should have, but couldn’t do.

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It was this lethal combination of incoherence and arrogance which did for the government in 2011. Nor to be fair, is Fine Gael in government immune to both traits, as evidenced by their breathtakingly cack-handed handling of the setting up of Irish Water at a time when the nation was still in trauma over the crash, and also by their unedifying headless chicken response to the Cervical Check controversy.

Moreover the decision by Sinn Féin’s top brass to attend en masse the funeral of Bobby Storey as the pandemic raged was arrogant and ill-judged.

The ability of governments to repeatedly and almost wilfully mishear the public mood music is extraordinary, and never more so than now. At times of crisis, political leaders have three tasks: put together a co-ordinated and logical plan to imbue confidence; explain it clearly to the public to promote solidarity, and deliver on promises made to build trust.

How could they have got it so wrong? How could all the public representatives and pillars of the establishment who rocked up to the hotel in Clifden for a golf dinner, failed to understand the distress of the men, women and children of Ireland who have missed baptisms and burials, cancelled weddings and holidays for the greater good of all?

How could they not have learned from the parade of ghosts of toppled administrations of the past?

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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