‘Status quo position’ on the economy and election strategies are ‘not acceptable’, Cowen tells Galwa

New strategies must be adopted on both the economy and in next year’s local elections as “the status quo position” and the old methods are no longer acceptable in the current climate. This was the message Taoiseach Brian Cowen delivered this week at his press conference in Galway.

Security was tight and highly visible at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party think-in at the Clayton Hotel. Equally visible were the country’s leading Pol-Cors - eager to press the Taoiseach and his TDs on the economy, Lisbon, and Noel Grealish - and local councillors and prospective candidates, all eager to be make their presence felt for fear any of the top brass might forget them.

The think-in came to a close on Tuesday afternoon with a press conference with An Taoiseach Brain Cowen, and before that the traditional ‘family photograph’ near the hotel’s main entrance. As the Soldiers of Destiny gathered for the photo, many in that gathering and looking on were surely saying to themselves ‘The only person missing from this is Noel Grealish’.

The issue of Dep Grealish was raised by the Galway Advertiser when I asked if An Taoiseach had any inkling of when Dep Grealish would join Fianna Fáil? Taoiseach Cowen famously brought the house down during a Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis when he said of the PDs “if in doubt leave them out!” This time his remarks were diplomatic.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “That’s a matter for Mr Grealish. If at any stage in the future he wants to join there is a procedure for application. An application must be submitted and the party will consider that.”

Tuesday night’s PD meeting declared the party was “no longer politically viable” but that its members would decide on that view for themselves next month. As a result Mr Grealish stays put for the next few weeks.

However the Taoiseach must be hoping Dep Grealish does as he is expected and joins FF, thereby handing it the holy grail of three seats in Galway West - something Fianna Fáil has lusted after since Bobby Molloy’s defection to the PDs in 1985.

Dep Grealish’s future will have ramifications for the local elections. If the PDs become extinct next month, PD councillors will have to decide if they are joining FF, Fine Gael, or going independent. When asked if FF local election strategy and selections were trying to take this into account before any final decisions were made, the Taoiseach replied: “We are working in a vacuum and there have been no decisions made on the issue.”

Mistakes of 2004 will not be repeated

However he was far more straight talking on other matters relating to the local elections and his remarks here may send a shiver down the spine of those who lost their seats in 2004 and are now looking to make a comeback.

In 2004 Fianna Fáil lost 20 per cent of its council seats. The party is determined to win them back but faces an uphill struggle being the Government party in a time of recession.

“Various strategies were adopted in 2004 that will not be repeated,” the Taoiseach declared. “Thirty per cent of the seats we lost were on the basis that we had too many candidates. We got the votes but they did not transfer to each other well, so we lost out.”

The Taoiseach added that there has been close consultation with local organisations explaining why selection conventions will not be held and that potential candidates will be interviewed instead. He said the strategies due to be adopted in the 2009 Local Elections are also being discussed.

What seat targets does the Taoiseach have?

“We’ve no targets,” he said. “I expect in the next few weeks a strategy review we commissioned will be completed and given to us - for internal party use - but there are 170 electoral areas which we will be contesting and 700 prospective candidates who want to stand. They will contest against whatever the background is no matter what.”

Bertie Ahern had the luxury of being Taoiseach during the good times. It is not so with the current Government Troika of Taoiseach Cowen, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan jr, who stare the recession in the face - a fact brought home bluntly by the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Monday.

“It doesn’t give confidence,” said the Taoiseach, “when you see banks of that magnitude go. Markets reflect the sentiments of the time. They go up and they go down but they are working in a more difficult climate. They have to adjust to the circumstances but equity markets are not the most exact barometer, but we have to face facts that the market is volatile.”

Major roads will be completed

When asked if the economic situation will curtail pressing ahead with National Development Plan projects, the Taoiseach replied: “The major road projects to which we are committed, they will be completed. Government activity is geared towards coming up with economic provisions that will give confidence.”

Such a strategy may give rise to fears that the Government will spend recklessly in the hope of ‘buying’ the next election. However Taoiseach Cowen admitted ‘pain’ is more likely to lay ahead.

“People expect the Government to come forward with appropriate responses for the new circumstances,” he said. “There is no painless way of doing this but if we explain to people what we are doing they will understand. The status quo position is not acceptable.”

The Cowen Troika has been accused of inaction and indecision over the economy. Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore recently said the Government were like “rabbits staring into headlights” on the issue.

Throughout Tuesday’s press conference, the Taoiseach put a brave face on the economic picture. No major strategies were unveiled, but it is hoped the think-in will at least go back to Leinster House with some ideas of how to go forward.

There was however a lighter moment at the start of the conference. As Brian Cowen and the Pol-Cors waited for RTÉ and TV3, one journalist asked Taoiseach Cowen: “Sing us a song while we’re waiting” to which he replied: “You can buy the CD while you’re here.”

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