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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 14, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Cowen’s prospects

    Harry McGee

    There was a time when a challenge to a party leadership happened in two ways.
    The first was the modh direach method. That was when somebody threw down the gauntlet and declared that the leader no longer commanded the support of the authority.
    The second method was the whiskey and revolver scenario. That was when the men in grey suits – or grandees as they are pretentiously called in Britain – visited the leader’s room and told him that the writing was on the wall. They then withdrew discretely, leaving a figurative glass of whiskey and revolver on the table.
    In Fianna Fail, the battle to oust Cowen is happening by a third method. It is called muttering
    It has been very apparent for some time that there is clear unhappinness with Cowen’s leadership of the country and of the party. His people keep on saying that he’s spending every moment of every day doing heroics for the country, wearing a crown of thorns to enable his people return once again to the promised land.
    The problem is that if he’s doing all that, nobody is any the wiser for it. His public appearances have been rare. And sporadic. And patchy. And his previous mediocre record as a lacklustre Minister for Finance is coming back to haunt him. I don’t doubt his honesty. But the problem is that even if he happened to have – by happenstance – shared a lift with Seanie Fitzpatrick or David Drumm going into some bankers’ event, that would be enough to hang him.
    It’s tough. It’s unfair. It’s politics.
    But you look at his troops in Fianna Fail and you wonder at the lack of bottle so many of his rivals have. It’s clear that the three potential leadership contenders are jockeying for position and that they are getting their troops into formation, in preparation for the battle ahead.
    The very pointed refusal to express confidence in Cowen shows that Hanafin no longer supports his leadership. Neither of the other two contenders, Brian Lenihan nor Micheal Martin, have raised their head above the parapet publicly.
    Both did go and speak to Cowen separately on Monday and told him that the situation was bad. My understanding is that neither explicitly told him that it was time to go.
    Maybe they are conscious of what happened to Michael Heseltine in the late 1980s when he challenged Margaret Thatcher. It gave birth to the glorious phrase (that sounds Shakespearian but isn’t):”He who wields the dagger never wears the crown”.
    What’s happening instead is a tectonic shift of the earth’s plates. It is called the middle ground of the Fianna Fail party shifting away from Cowen. We all know who the dissidents were but Cowen could rely on a core of TDs and Ministers – a clear majority – who were unhappy alright but not unhappy enough to give him the order of the boot.
    But the spate of recent dismal opinion polls has been corroborated by them facing hostility on the doors. It hasn’t been helped by the Seanie Fitzpatrick revelations. At this moment of time, I think Cowen is a goner.
    The timing is lousy for Fianna Fail. But then the timing in everything in politics is lousy. If Cowen goes, Fianna Fail will be left with a very complicated leadership arrangement where Cowen remains as Taoiseach and somebody else leads the party into an election. This is the last silver bullet available to the Taoiseach: he can argue that the confusion this arrangement will leave in the minds of voter will not deliver any bounce.
    But the reality facing the party is that even if it happens it can’t be any worse than it is at the moment. Cowen has believed his fighting qualities – roused to heroic levels during election campaigns – could see them through. But they have been in evidence, they have not been in evidence enough, or just don’t impress in the way they once did.
    So why is it all being dragged out? Well, as one Cowenite put it (and I apologise in advance for the earthy phrase): “The big question is does Micheal have the balls to do it?”
    There’s a belief that Martin is too cautious and is too timid to mount a direct challenge and is hoping that other people will do his bidding. Is this true? Martin is far less circumspect these days than he was in the past but he is a Bertie-like waverer when it comes to making big hard decisions (smoking ban excepted).
    I didn’t think earlier in the week it would come to this. But I do think now that Cowen will go. I spoke to a couple of his closest supporters yesterday and they were unsure; they felt that the middle ground – the bulwark of his support – was slipping away.
    If it has, and there is evidence to back this, then my own guess is that he will take the hard decision himself and step down, paving the way for a leadership contest.
    It will give the party a boost, enough to salvage some seats, and change the status of the General Election from total catastrophe to mere disaster.
    At least in Fine Gael, all the muttering became a full-blooded battle. I just sense that Cowen no longer has the energy or inclination to keep on fighting. So in Fianna Fail, it looks like it will happen at subcutaneous level, almost imperceptibly, by osmosis.

    • Northern Observer says:

      Good blog as usual Harry. You have remained one of the most measured correspondents during the last 2 and a half years, particularly in relation to the Taoiseach. I think you’re ultimately right, that he will end up stepping aside perhaps later today.
      If so then you’re colleagues in the media will no doubt do that which they are so unused, reflect. Some perhaps will convey a picture of a Taoiseach who has sacrificed his political career in order to stabilise the nation. Of course he has communicated badly, more a sin because he is actually a gifted orator. It seems imperative however that politics is not simply reduced to becoming a consumerist endeavour. It demands more attention and commitment than merely the attraction of a good sales pitch. Cowen, widely acknowledged as a gifted, decent and honest public servant has battled unsuccessfully against a reactionary and angry populist tide. The mantra of the cabinet taking hard decisions is not without foundation. Some of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation in the history of the state have been passed during the course of this Dáil. They are generally accepted as having stabilised our economic outlook. A fair point can be made regarding the economic mistakes of the past, particularly the culture which was allowed develop. Cowen is not immune to criticism on these points at all. Even within this analysis however there has been a distinct lack of realism acknowledging the financial crisis which has ripped open the seams of the western world.
      My gripe is not so much that Brian Cowen as an individual has been placed as a scapegoat for the choices which would have confronted any sitting Taoiseach. It is not the fate which awaits the Fianna Fáil party at the general election. Cowen is a seasoned politician who can take the politic punches, and the Fianna Fáil party are badly in need of reform and renewal. My gripe is that the quality of discourse amongst people and commentariat has at best been unbalanced and at worst been simplistic and vitriolic. Our discourse has done nothing for the health and perspective of the nation. My thanks to you Harry (and Shane Coleman of the Tribune) for at least attempting to provide common sense amongst all the chaos.

    • mclovin says:

      Excellent analysis. The only saving grace for Fianna Fail is that Enda Kenny does not inspire any great confidence in the great unwashed electorate. Imagine the drubbing they would get if FG had a more credible leader.

    • Fergal says:

      I suppose it’s a cliche to say that “he should have gone long before” now but i’ll repeat it nonetheless. How can anyone in this country have faith in politics and view it as having any inherent deceny when his actions and those of others are not accountable. The Bull O’Donoghue lived up to his moniker and tried to dig in and cling on until he realised he was horse and the saddle was forced on him. Despite this i behaved like a sulking child as he delivered his self-righteous decision to the Dáil. At least Trevor Sargeant went without much huffing and puffing and by comparison his sin was small beer compared with Cowen and his cronies. If democracy is to mean anything in country there has to be a seismic shift but i would not be optimistic about the tectonic plates of change crunching and shifting gears. If you look across the water at the British it seems that there is at least a modicum of decency and accountability by comparison with the Republic. Cowen, in typical and consistent Fianna Fáil fashion, will brassneck it until he has no choice but to lie down.

    • Weak, weak and weaker. Potential leaders and those in charge are stifling in their weakness! The only people pulling their political weight at the moment are Sinn Fein. Their day may yet come.

    • Cian says:

      Harry I agree with your analysis. However, I think the long term damage to Fianna Fail will be extensive. In my opinion, Cowen will forever be remembered as Ireland’s worst Taoiseach. This will impact on Fianna Fail’s future election prospects. The only way to combat this is by all the senior Fianna Fail ministers standing down at the next general election and letting those that are not contaminated by the past thirteen years takeover.

    • Verity says:

      Any “political frenzy” going on at the moment is opposition/media driven.
      FG/Labour (not to mention the Shinners) know they have the greatest window of opportunity they will ever, ever have at this point in time, since whoever was in government during the unprecedented global politico/economic crisis would not be popular and it is the opposition lot who are in a bloodthirsty frenzy and creating a mood of despair and controversy (which incidentally is doing our image abroad a lot of damage) as they salivate (ugh) over the possibility of power. Of course, in real time, the crisis is abating – given all the hard work done to avert it, including and especially by the present coalition government’s making all the really tough decisions and in particular the cautious/vigilant strategies of Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan. Fianna Fail will NO DOUBT emerge/recover from this media-hyped/manufactured debacle (re Brian Cowen’s leadership) and if it is “to vent their frustrations” the electorate seek to do at the next election, my advice to them would be to be very, very careful with that vote. Our recovery course is set out “in stone” for the next four years and (if in government) all FG/Labour basically will be able to do, is bookkeeping and from empty promises and outdated rhetoric, Lord preserve us and thank God the present coalition government have set out the course for the next four years so that the old-fashioned die-hards from FG/Labour (and God knows what other crackpots) can’t do too much damage – but I am absolutely sure they won’t disappoint us…given the opportunity……….Bring it on.

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      The problem is not just Brian Cowen but the political ideology that he and both FF and FG espouse. This is the ideology which trumpets market fundamentalism and deregulation. Boston or Berlin is not just a slogan. Ireland has to decide if it wants to go the way of the US (with the huge inequities in society that brings) or the way of Europe which tempers raging capitalism with regulation and an ongoing drive for a fair and just society.

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