At first glance, it appears Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has quite a bit in common with former British prime minister Gordon Brown. Both men were swept to power through internal appointment rather than a general election. The effects of the global financial crisis on Irish and British economies shadowed the prime ministerial terms of Cowen and Brown and, like Brown and Labour in May last year, Cowen and Fianna Fáil are facing an humiliating defeat at the polls in March.
Cowen has spent most of his term as Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) justifying Fianna Fáil’s handling of Ireland’s economic boom between 1995 and 2000, a time when annual GDP growth averaged 5-11%. Ireland was nicknamed the “Celtic Tiger” as it underwent transformation from being one of the poorest members of the European Union to one of its wealthiest. Ireland was finally able to progress beyond having an economy based primarily on agriculture to being able to attract multi-national companies such as Microsoft to set up base in Ireland.
In December 2010, Cowen and his Finance Minister Brian Lenihan were forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for an €83 billion bailout. The days of the Celtic Tiger were well and truly over, and Cowen found himself firmly in the firing line. Cowen faced criticism from members of his own party over his handling of the financial crisis, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Martin claiming that ministers were kept in the dark over discussions with the IMF and EU.
Martin challenged Cowen in a leadership contest earlier this month and while Cowen won, his reputation as party leader and Taoiseach was further damaged by allegations of Cowen fraternising with former Anglo-Irish bank president Sean FitzPatrick in July 2008. This was just three months before the government offered a €440 billion guarantee of Irish bank liabilities, a decision that ultimately led to the December bailout.
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Some argue Cowen and Lenihan are merely sacrificial lambs, experiencing the backlash reserved for their predecessors Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy. Ahern became Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach in 1997 and together with then finance minister McCreevy oversaw Ireland’s transformation into the Celtic Tiger. Ahern and McCreevy turned to popularist policy, introducing unsustainably low tax rates and creating state over-dependence on the construction and property sectors.
Ahern also indulged in crony capitalism; criticisms arose from Fianna Fáil’s constant courting of construction companies and bankers. Ahern created a myth of equality, suggesting that courting the wealthier sections of Irish society would mean the wealth created from these partnerships would eventually be redistributed to the average Irish citizen. This myth blinkered Ahern and, as a result, no serious steps were taken to prepare the state for the inevitable bust in 2008.
One of the great ironies of Fianna Fáil’s fall from grace is its foundations lie in the establishment and preservation of Irish sovereignty. Fianna Fáil was founded by Éamon de Valera and was born out of the anti-Anglo-Irish treaty movement. The party’s name roughly translated into English means “Soldiers of Destiny” and it lists maintaining Ireland’s sovereignty as a priority in its party constitution.
However, many Irish voters see Ahern’s and Cowen’s actions as betraying these ideals as the December bailout was seen as a major blow to Irish sovereignty. Cowen resigned as leader of Fianna Fáil on January 22 and was replaced by Michael Martin. Cowan was then forced to call an early election in March after Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, the Green Party, failed to back the election of a new cabinet.
The Irish parliament is expected to be dissolved this week and Fianna Fáil is facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat that could see them become Ireland’s third major political party after Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. It is now up to Martin to try and convince Irish voters that Fianna Fáil can rise above the scandals and failures that have tainted the Ahern and Cowen administrations.