16 October 2008

The Minister for defending the Indefensible

Being an island nation with a small population and no natural enemies, Ireland maintains only a very small Army (of less than 10,000 strength), an even smaller Naval Service for coastal patrol purposes (1200 strong) and a tiny Air Corps (with 930 personnel).

Thus the position of Minister for Defence is actually not the most demanding in the Cabinet, which probably explains why the current office holder, Limerick Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea (right), has been chosen for a new additional role by the Taoiseach and his colleagues in government.

O'Dea is now more and more appearing as inofficial government spokesman on various political topics that are not related to his Defence portfolio. (Unlike many other countries, Ireland does not have a Minister for Information or full-time government spokesman, and usually ministers speak to the media on matters that concern their department.)

Ever since Brian Cowen became Taoiseach in May, Willie O'Dea has appeared several times on RTÉ and in press conferences, presenting and defending various aspects of government policy. So one wonders if under the new leadership of Cowen the Department of Defence is now also charged with defending the government against the increasing criticism from the opposition, the media and the Irish people.

The latest appearance of Willie O'Dea in his new role as defender of the government was today on RTÉ Radio 1, when he tried to explain and justify the highly unpopular measures and new taxes that his Cabinet colleague, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, introduced in his 2009 Budget on Tuesday.

Lenihan appeared himself on Pat Kenny's programme yesterday and tried his best to fend off the massive public outrage his new budget has caused within the nation, but now he is hiding behind the walls of his department, where he is apparently "busy working out the necessary details of the finance bill". Very convenient for him, and of course another chance to wheel out the governments new multi-purpose defence weapon - Willie O'Dea.

One cannot say that he is not trying hard in his new role, but nevertheless he has very little impact with his arguments. Defending the indefensible never works, and even a minister whose job is defence cannot succeed in such a task. It does also not help that O'Dea's public perception is that of an involuntary comedian, a reputation he acquired long before he was promoted to ministerial duties.

Perhaps it would be better for Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan to stand up and admit that they have failed in their task to govern the country properly and prudently. They could still make amends and adjust the new budget. But even better - and certainly more fair and honest - would be to call a new general election and let the people of Ireland decide whom they want to run the country under the new conditions of recession, financial meltdown, high unemployment and global crisis.

The Emerald Islander

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