Cowen's spectacular coup ends as one of the greatest self-inflicted wounds


The sequence of events over the last two days resulted in complete turmoil for Fianna Fáil

AT THE end of one of the most extraordinary days in Irish politics yesterday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen learned to his cost that in the modern political context perception is just as important as the facts and the rules he so loves.

And his lack of understanding of this may have ultimately cost him the job he had fought so impressively to retain in the previous week.

What the Taoiseach and his associates had conceived as a spectacular coup - replacing six Cabinet members - turned out to be one of the greatest self-inflicted wounds for a political leader in the history of the State.

Even the most loyal of TDs who rallied behind the Taoiseach earlier this week were wondering aloud last night how they had got it wrong. Was he the right leader for Fianna Fáil entering its most difficult election?

Darragh O'Brien, a loyal supporter, was typical: "It's been a shambles. I feel so strongly and so angry about it all. I cannot believe how badly handled it was."

THE EVENTSbegan to unfold last Sunday morning. Hours before he announced he was not resigning as Fianna Fáil leader, Cowen rang Green leader John Gormley to say he was staying on as Taoiseach.

During the conversation, he also mentioned to Gormley he would use his constitutional prerogative to appoint individuals to overcome the difficulties Fianna Fáil had with so many retiring ministers.

Gormley did not give an opinion at that stage but said when he spoke to the Taoiseach later that day he said he did not think it was a good idea.

The issue was raised again on Wednesday morning, when the two Government parties met for an hour and a half to talk about the climate change legislation and discuss a possible date for the election.

Cowen was accompanied by Government Chief Whip John Curran and Minister for Defence Tony Killeen. Eamon Ryan and Senator Dan Boyle were with Gormley representing the Greens.

The meeting was cordial. Cowen brought up what he said was an important issue, the need to refresh his Government.

He mentioned the need for a reshuffle and mentioned Micheál Martin and three retiring Ministers whom he wanted replaced - Tony Killeen, Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey.

IT ISat this stage the sides depart on what was said and what understanding they took from the meeting.

Cowen said the Greens raised two objections at the meeting. The first was that the reshuffle might be used to prolong the life of Government. The second was that the public perception of the reshuffle might be negative.

Cowen said he addressed the first by saying the Dáil would still be dissolved once the Finance Bill was passed. Ergo no delay. On perception, he said he made the argument that you could not make decisions based on that, and it was his prerogative to change the Fianna Fáil side of Cabinet. He said the understanding he, Killeen and Curran took was that it was agreed.

Killeen also said this was his understanding. Indeed, it was during the meeting that he learned he was going to be resigning.

"So the first thing I did after the meeting was go back to my office and write a resignation letter. I happened to meet the Taoiseach on the Ministers' corridor in Government Buildings and handed him the letter," he said.

But the Greens have a different recollection of the meeting. Gormley said yesterday that Eamon Ryan, in particular, had argued against replacing Ministers at this late stage.

"We could not have been clearer. We said it in an unequivocal fashion. We said this sent out another wrong signal to the Irish people, who were suffering and furious, and this would send out the wrong message," he said.

The meeting broke up and both sides went their separate ways.

Gormley appeared on Six One Newsthat evening and said the party would need to be consulted before any changes were made. He signalled they would have concerns but might not object to one or two.

He referred to Micheál Martin and made an oblique reference to Dermot Ahern, who was in hospital this week for a hip operation. He said there might be a case for him to step down. Half an hour after the news programme, an irate Ahern rang him to say he was in his office and was perfectly capable of performing his duties as Minister.

Then began the extraordinary sequence of resignations: Ms Harney at 9pm and the three others just before 11pm. At 10.30pm, Batt O'Keeffe also handed in his resignation as Minister for Enterprise, though that was not announced until the following morning.

THERE HADbeen rumours of a reshuffle throughout Wednesday. But several TDs contacted by The Irish Timesthat night said they would never have accepted an offer of promotion on the basis it would wash very badly in their constituencies. "It was a complete rush to the head by Cowen. He was offering ministries to guys who didn't even want them," said one TD yesterday.

Rumours abounded yesterday about who the "lucky" ones were. Names mentioned included Sean Connick, Dick Roche, Margaret Conlon, Dara Calleary and Darragh O'Brien. The latter two say they never received a call.

One person who did get a call was Barry Andrews - phoned at home after midnight and offered the Justice portfolio. He said he was flattered but declined on the basis he did not want to be seen to abandon the difficult children's portfolio so late in the day.

The reshuffle plan was drawn up by Cowen and his closest advisers, in response to calls from younger TDs for renewal.

A senior politician who is very close to Cowen admitted the Taoiseach hadn't thought the consequences through. The politician also conceded that, notwithstanding Cowen's understanding, it was clear that Gormley's Six One Newsinterview showed there were still outstanding concerns.

"Those concerns were not addressed until early this morning and by that time it was too late," said the politician yesterday.

Technically, the decision was the Taoiseach's prerogative, so much so that none of his ministers was aware of the changes until they learned of it on the news. That included the Greens. Gormley was shocked to hear from his wife of Harney's resignation after he had arrived home from a political engagement. He learned of the other three resignations when listening to the 7am news headlines. "The whole thing was being presented as a fait accompli," he said yesterday. "I rang the Taoiseach there and then and expressed my surprise and dismay."

Others were also letting it be known it was not a good idea. Fianna Fáil TD Ned O'Keeffe said on Morning Irelandit would be seen by people as cynical. Cowen rang him afterwards to chide him, saying party discipline needed to be respected. But, as events transpired, O'Keeffe would not be the only internal critic.

THE DIEwas cast with a statement by Green TD Paul Gogarty that castigated the decision. The party's TDs and Senators came together at 9.30am for a meeting. Some argued an immediate pull-out but others said dialogue was needed.

During the next three hours, delegations from the party went to Cowen three times to discuss the situation. They had quickly come to a view that none of the departing ministers could be replaced. To that they added another ultimatum. Cowen needed to name the date of the election. If he didn't, the party would walk. Gormley went alone the first time. On the second trip, he was joined by Mary White. The last meeting also included Eamon Ryan.

Early on, the Taoiseach was not for turning. The Greens collectively drafted a statement and readied for an appearance on the plinth, where Gormley would announce they were pulling out of Government. During the exchanges, Cowen asked them were they prepared to accept any new minister. They made clear they were not.

The final meeting, at 12.30pm, was tense and terse. But, to their surprise, Cowen capitulated and agreed with reassignment. He also told the Greens he would name March 11th as election day.

Later that evening, Cowen - barely concealing his anger - said the Greens had altered a long-standing tradition relating to prerogative.

But why had he stayed? One of those close to him said: "He could have been bull-headed and pulled down the edifice. But he had no choice but to say in the interest of getting the Finance Bill through."

Cowen had a practical problem at this stage. The resignations had already been sent to Áras an Uachtaráin and accepted by President Mary McAleese. It meant six vacancies were reassigned to five Fianna Fáil ministers.

ALL MORNING, Fianna Fáil TDs gathered in groups at Leinster House, waiting to see what the Greens would do. The verdict was unanimous, even from Cowen loyalists: this was a disaster.

"Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He was brilliant on Wednesday. And then within a day, we were back to where we were before the challenge was made," said one.

Micheál Martin was highly visible around Leinster House.

Cowen arrived into the Dáil at 1.30pm and, in a downbeat voice, made the official announcement of the climbdown.

But the real action was taking place outside the chamber. A huddle of prominent personalities in the party gathered at the top of the stairs outside the main entrance to the Dáil. Micheál Martin, Brian Lenihan, John McGuinness, Maire Hoctor, Conor Lenihan and Beverley Flynn were present and discussed what had happened, within easy earshot of journalists.

Brian Lenihan was involved in another urgent huddle outside the self-service restaurant in Leinster House. Conor Lenihan, John McGuinness, Sean Fleming and Sean Connick were among the others who came in and out of the discussion. It was clear the party was in crisis mode and in turmoil.

The first to break cover and openly call for Cowen to go was Conor Lenihan. Speaking at 4pm, he said: "It's back on the agenda. Cowen [ should] think about the situation he is in and takes the resolute action that people expect him to take."

A few other well-known dissidents, including Michael Kennedy, also began to call for leadership change.

"We can't heave against him," said another TD, one of the so-called Ógra generation.

"His friends need to go to him. I know the circumstances are horrendous but if he wants to do the party a favour he will go . . .

"If he wants to brazen it out, officially he has the authority. It's the same as saying it's the Taoiseach's prerogative. Of course it is. But the political reality is that he has to consult and clear it with the Greens."

At a press conference at 5pm in the Merrion Hotel, the Greens announced they were staying in Government.

Both Cowen and Gormley then appeared on Six One Newsto put across their versions of what happened at the fateful meeting. Towards the end of his interview, Cowen summed up his position: "I knew they [ the Greens] were having concerns about perception. But you can't make decisions based on public perception."