Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Friday, 1 January 2010

Irish leader Brian Cowen faces another tough year

2009 was Brian Cowen's first year as Irish Prime Minister
2009 was Brian Cowen's first year as Irish Prime Minister

It's hard to believe that 2009 was Brian Cowen's first full year as Irish prime minister.

But already one thing is clear - he would not pass Napoleon's lucky general test.

Since taking over from as Taoiseach from Bertie Ahern, Cowen has had to deal with an Irish economy in crisis because of a domestic property crash.

That left banks teetering close to the edge and trying to come to terms with the implications of the international credit crunch.

And his response to the Murphy and Ryan reports into child sex abuse by priests and religious orders was widely seen as weak and insufficiently critical of the Catholic Church.

Even the weather, as witnessed by the November floods - the worst in living memory - appeared to be against him.

Lisbon victory

The only good news he had in 2009 was the victory in the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

The treaty, which aims to streamline decision-making in an enlarged European Union, was rejected first time round by the Irish people in 2008.

That first vote, coming just weeks after Mr Cowen was elected Taoiseach, quickly brought his brief honeymoon with the Irish people to an end.

As he looks back on the last 12 months, Mr Cowen must hope that 2009 was the year he laid the foundations for a change in fortune.

In September, Finance minister Brian Lenihan set up the National Assets Management Agency, Nama, to take over the Irish banks' bad debts.

It is hoped that the agency will help rebuild the banks' balance sheets and encourage them to lend more to small businesses and help economic recovery.

Twelve months after the first vote, the public voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty
Twelve months after the first vote, the public voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty

Not that the government here expects a return to growth in 2010; indeed, after a decline of over 7% in 2009 it expects a decline of between 1% and 2% in the coming 12 months.

Mr Cowen's Fianna Fáil - Green coalition government remains deeply unpopular.

It took a big beating in the European and local elections in June and the December budget did nothing to make it more attractive to voters.

Mr Lenihan slashed government spending by 4bn euros, cut all public servants pay by at least 5% and reduced social welfare as he tried to bring the Republic's debt under control.

The unions and many ordinary people were outraged with the threats of industrial action left hanging in the air for 2010.

But the government said it had to introduce strong medicine for the patient that is the Irish economy.

What's more, ministers say the tough measures are working and the country is now on the road both to recovery and stabilising its finances.

We'll see...

Looking ahead

The coalition has already said things will be difficult until 2014, regardless of whether there's a global recovery, as the country tries to narrow the gap between public spending and money raised through taxation.

Next year's budget promises both a property tax and water charges; not something voters will be looking forward to.

Despite the odd wobble the government is still in place and may well see out its five year term; not something many thought possible earlier in the year as the administration seemed paralysed by inaction, rather like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

With Dublin pre-occupied by its economic problems ministers have been devoting less time to Northern Ireland than in the past.

But the Irish government agrees with the British on the desirability of devolving policing and justice powers sooner rather than later and keeping the devolved institutions up and running.

Will Jedward represent Ireland in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest?
Will Jedward represent Ireland in the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest?

And there's a growing, and some politicians say, a wearying sense that Northern Ireland will be back and higher on the agenda than in 2009.

So, what is there to look forward to in 2010?

Not Irish participation in the World Cup in South Africa - Thierry Henry's handball put paid to that.

Jedward, from the X-Factor, representing Ireland in the Eurovision song contest?

It doesn't look as though Ireland and Brian Cowen's luck will be changing any time soon.



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