Brian Cowen’s speech to the party faithful at the recent Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis should have been his ‘Urbi et Orbi’ moment. In the end, he connected with neither. Here’s the sort of heresy that could have restored his currency with the country:
“Citizens, Ireland has gone from boom to bust in little more than a year. We’re losing jobs at a frightening rate. Taxes are collapsing, yet spending is soaring. The Government is taking in less than €2 for every €3 it is shelling out. We can borrow some of the shortfall, but only for a while. We also need a clear roadmap for the future. I can only begin to convince you that this Government is capable of leading us out of this crisis by accepting we were culpable in creating it. We chose the light touch over the heavy hand, because the former seemed to work so well abroad and because the latter had failed so dismally here at home.
“But things got out of hand, there as well as here. We were very, very wrong. And I am very, very sorry.
“We have a mountain to climb but because the rest of the world is in trouble, we have to set out in the dark. We can’t wait for daybreak because there’s simply no way of knowing when the dawn will come. But we do have well-established camps along the slopes — especially our Universities and Institutes of Technology.
“Ireland faces three massive challenges: to rebuild our shattered banks, to repair our tattered finances, and to restore your hope that the country has a future — and your faith that this Government can and will work for all.
“We’ve taken the decision to recapitalise the banks, not because we love them but because we can’t live without them. But we will recruit new captains and a new lighthouse keeper so that the regulatory regime never again turns a blind eye as the reckless run their ships and our economy onto the rocks.
“Salaries will be capped, bonuses ended, credit restored. The Regulator will be a triumvirate from Sweden, Japan and Canada; we need people who know how to solve a banking crisis and design and oversee a new regime.
The cardinal error
“We also need to shine the searchlight into every corner of public spending. During the good times, the Government made the cardinal error of cutting taxes to the bone and letting public spending skyrocket, but never looked critically at whether things were being done right or if the right things were being done.
“In order to balance the books in the next five years, we will spend 20 cent less and tax 30 cent more on every euro. Every scheme, every proposal, every tax shelter, every capital programme, every fee for a professional service will go on trial for its life.
“Each will have to prove its worth, not through special pleading but what they contribute and what they cost. If it can’t pay its way, it will fall by the way.
“Ireland is and will remain a friendly country for foreign capital. We will continue to tax it lightly and with good reason. It is one of the few competitive advantages we enjoy; and a powerful driving force for job creation, economic modernisation and intellectual innovation. However, we can no longer ignore the natural resources underneath our seas, or their potential for rescuing and restarting our economy.
“We will immediately reopen talks with those exploring or licensed to explore for oil and gas in order to get a bigger share of the revenues for our people. The OECD has found that Norway has done exceptionally well from its reserves and there is every reason to believe we would do just as well from a fairer regime.
“The Government will pour the proceeds into our education and training system, modernising it at every level. IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the universities and institutes of technology will have to work together like never before — harder and smarter — to ready people and businesses for the upturn.
“We are immediately reducing the number of Junior Ministers to seven, capping Cabinet salaries at one quarter of the annual salary of a TD, stopping the turning-up-and-walking-around allowances not strictly necessary for a TD or Senator to do their job, and withholding pensions from all former civil and public servants who are either still in gainful employment or have not yet reached the age of 65.
“I won’t use the gas guzzler delivered last year and have asked for it be put up on eBay.
“Tonight we get off our knees, stand shoulder to shoulder and show the world that the miracle of the last decade was not a mirage. I have tried to tell you fully and truthfully where we stand, and what we must do to turn the tide. If I am remembered as the person who sundered his party to save the country, then so be it.
“We are fighting not just for survival but the right to determine our own future. We haven’t come this far just to hand back the keys. But others are watching. If we don’t act fully, fairly and fast, they will do it for us.”