The Rebels within awaken
Being a backbencher for a Government party is the most unenviable job in Irish politics. Made more so because there is no tradition of rebellion here as they have in Westminster.Occasionally, we hear mutinous noises – usually about the impact of a policy (like drink driving or the smoking ban) on constituents. Or if a policy is going to be too hard on people. But mutinies are quickly quelled. Only on rare occasions do we see the whip being withdrawn. It is a rareity indeed to see a deputy cross the chamber, as Joe Behan did at the tail end of 2007.
There was a potential mutiny afoot in Fianna Fail yesterday following the leaking of details of the deal that was being worked out between the Government and public sector unions.
But what was really unusual about this is that TDs rebelled not because the Government’s stance was too hard but because it wasn’t hard enough.
Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan have been softening and conditioning TDs and Senators for months about a savage budget. All have come around to it.
It was galling for some to see yesterday that the person who seemed to be getting cold feet about this was the person who told them to brace themselves for a savaging because there was no alternative.
It looks really bad for Cowen. Those who were angry yesterday included many who were not the usual suspects. His credibility with his own TDs has suffered a huge fall in the past 24 hours. Hence, the sudden toughening up of attitude by senior Government ministers today.
It’s not been said but there’s also a clash between Cowen and Lenihan that may turn out to be a sytemic problem in the long-term(ie not sorted out without a leadership tussle).
The Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting was packed today. At least 30 TDs spoke, all with the same voice. They just don’t like the unpaid leave proposal. Nor do their constituents. And they want the €4 billion cuts implemented.
Cowen and Lenihan told them that what was reported reflected the union position, and not any agreement.
But did it?
The key question is: was there some backsliding from Government earlier this week? Did Cowen agree, even tentatively, to an arrangement on leave that would save €1 billion and not the €1.3 that Brian Lenihan has been talking about for many months now.
It is certain that there something of a face-saving operation to be gleaned from union announcements on Tuesday night. They had to show grounds for calling off today’s stoppage. If it had gone ahead, there is some evidence to suggest it would not have been a success. But did union leaders claim gains and concessions that had not been gained or conceded by Government? Did they oversell their own progress?
It’s not going to be possible to find a definitive answer to that. There are rumours that a deal had been struck and the Government is now backsliding. On the other side, there are also stories that the Government allowed the unions some leeway on public pronouncements because the strike was being called off. And that some of them took liberties and oversold it.
Whatever the interpretation, the big loser who came out of all of this was Cowen himself.
Cabinet meeting went on until after 7pm. Looks like the 12 day leave of absence proposal is no longer a real runner. If it is it will be in diluted form.