A reunited shambles staggers on towards certain election oblivion

Wed, Jan 19, 2011, 00:00

The Taoiseach can now hold his head up high on the way to the political knacker’s yard, writes MIRIAM LORD

AND STILL they stagger on: Cowen, the dead duck; Martin the lame duck; Hanafin the gutless duck; and Lenihan, the superior duck who shot himself in the foot.

The next Cabinet meeting will be like an episode of Casualty. (Minus the lame duck, already making an unexpected and rapid recovery.) But now that the air has been cleared, Fianna Fáil is a united shambles, lurching forward with renewed confidence toward electoral oblivion.

So the plucky Taoiseach has survived a vote of confidence in himself. This means he can hold his head high and walk unaided to the political knacker’s yard in a few months’ time.

The dead duck.

Martin looked like the biggest loser going into last night’s contest. Belatedly leading a charge against his disastrous leader, his challenge was feeble and lacked bite.

The lame duck.

The Minister for Fun quacked loudest in the run-up to the queasy heave. But after much speculation about what side this Minister would take on the confidence motion, she barely opened her beak save to whisper she wasn’t going to disclose her preference.

The gutless duck.

The Minister for Finance kept his powder dry until his much anticipated appearance on the lunchtime news. Brian, the bright barrister boy. The Government’s smooth-talking Mr Cleverality. But he combusted on air yesterday when he denied playing any part in plots to unseat the Taoiseach. Too busy saving the economy to be concerned with such frivolities.

Indeed, he couldn’t afford the “luxury of indulging” his own leadership ambitions. Anyway, Cowen has been good to him. “Humorous, intelligent and generous to a fault,” gushed loyalist Lenihan.

But the Minister’s words sparked fury among many party backbenchers. Three of them subsequently confirmed in public that Lenihan had “encouraged” them to move against the Taoiseach. Others complained privately that he had also spoken to them. The Minister may never have put anything on the record and he may say his colleagues misunderstood the import of his communications, but that has not stopped those backbenchers calling him a snake in the grass.

The superior duck who shot himself in the foot.

The final result was never really in doubt yesterday. Word from retiring Cabinet Ministers Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey bolstered Biffo’s case. The numbers declaring for him stacked up steadily. And he had Lenihan in the bag too.

If this came as a surprise to members of the media, it came as an unpleasant shock to those Fianna Fáil deputies who had been prepared to come out in the open and oppose their leader.

“He’s played a cute game and left Micheál twisting in the wind,” said one disgruntled TD.

Brian’s aunt Mary O’Rourke was out and about doing the rounds of the radio shows before the boy Brian did his thing at lunchtime. O’Rourke stressed her decision to vote confidence in the Taoiseach was not in any way related to her nephew’s game plan. “I have a mind of my own.” In fact, if truth be told, she had “no great enthusiasm for him.” But, sighed Mary, what else could the party do? It was too late now to turf Biffo out.

She had no idea what way the nephew would be voting (it was all over the morning papers) because “I haven’t asked him.”

It was a long day as deputies marked time until the evening meeting. Leaders’ Questions broke the monotony.

The turnout in the chamber was not a good indicator of the eventual result of the leadership heave. Just one other Minister – Noel Dempsey – sat on the front bench beside his leader. There was a healthy sprinkling of junior ministers, almost all loyal Cowenites. Then there were the backbenchers. The number massed in support for their Taoiseach swelled to an impressive three TDs at one point.

It was a lacklustre performance from Biffo, until the Sinn Féin leader needled him over his contacts with executives from Anglo Irish Bank.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin elicited the information about a dinner he had with them last week, and it looks like he’s going to be dining out on this triumph for the rest of his life.

The Taoiseach grew tired of Sleeveen’s innuendo about his relationship with the bank. “Don’t abuse the privilege of this House,” he snapped. “Go outside and say it and I’ll see ya in court!”

But this was only the sideshow. Just after 5pm, the Taoiseach slipped from the chamber whispering, “I have to get out of here.” The waiting game began.

Midway through the meeting, a vote was called in the House. Deputies spilled into the chamber. Cowen seemed pensive, but looked relaxed. Martin sat at the other other end of the row, on his own. His face said it all. He looked like a man who knew he had lost.

Hanafin sat in silence, looking suitably conflicted.

Lenihan perched on the top step, chatting to a little-known backbencher.

After the vote, they returned to business. The Taoiseach got into the lift for the fifth-floor party rooms. Before the doors closed, Martin came down the corridor towards the lift. He saw Cowen inside, executed a nifty side-step that Brian O’Driscoll would have been proud of and raced up the stairs.

Before the meeting ended, news came through of Hanafin’s failure to be upfront about her voting intentions, having dropped heavy hints in the run-up to the vote that she has no confidence in Cowen. Backbenchers were seething over her perceived lack of bottle.

“She’s too sneaky by half,” spat an incandescent deputy as he shot through the revolving doors towards the pub.

The result was confirmed in time to catch the end of the news. Cowen was still in office. Not so Martin, who resigned from Cabinet, sending his stock soaring even further among his colleagues, disgusted with the displays from Lenihan and Hanafin.

Chief Whip John Curran took to the plinth to announce the result. No other member of the parliamentary party – bar Donie Cassidy, who cannot pass a camera – wanted to be associated with it. Curran was surrounded by Cowen supporters from Offaly, including Cllr Danny Owens and Cllr Noel Burke from Edenderry. Burke enjoyed brief exposure as one of the guys in the famed David Davin-Power “donut” report, when he was surrounded by Fianna Fáil supporters doing a live broadcast from an ardfheis.

The Taoiseach didn’t appear on the plinth, much to the annoyance of the journalists, who muttered about Cowen slipping back to old ways already.

Martin is preparing for life without the ministerial Merc. (He won’t be on his own for long.) The heave is over.

And ironically, Martin, the man first perceived as the loser, has emerged as the winner.