Downbeat finale for Fianna Fáil and the frontman no one wants to see

Thu, Oct 1, 2009, 01:00

The main Government party could not figure out how you solve a problem like Cowen in their drive for a Yes vote, writes MIRIAM LORD

ONCE UPON a time, Brian Cowen saved Fianna Fáil’s bacon. Thanks to an inspired performance two years ago, he was credited with turning around a flagging general election campaign for his party.

Expectations of the man have diminished considerably since then. Perhaps it was wishful thinking to imagine Taoiseach Cowen might turn in a repeat performance yesterday, grabbing this referendum campaign by the scruff of the neck and reversing the flagging confidence of a nation at the last minute.

These days, it’s debatable whether Brian could even turn a frying sausage without setting the house on fire.

Therein lies the Government’s problem. In their drive for a Yes to Lisbon, Cowen remains the major complication. He is their front-of-house man, but that can be a bit of a problem when the voters don’t want to see him. This might explain the downbeat atmosphere at Fianna Fáil’s final referendum press conference yesterday.

The Taoiseach said all the right things – all the things expected of a head of government urging the country not to reject the Lisbon Treaty for a second time.

But where was the passion? Where was the confidence? Where was the sense of urgency? Where was the feeling that he was bringing the people with him? It wasn’t there in the ballroom of the Burlington Hotel yesterday. It was as if the team captain had togged out and was ready to play, but had left his match brain behind in the dressing room.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin – by far the more visible and persuasive face of Government during the campaign – sat in the front row. Beside him sat Minister Roche, or The Lesser Spotted Dick. (The Government chose to put a blanket over his cage when most of the referendum public outings were apportioned.) The ballroom wasn’t exactly packed for the press conference. Apparently, some 400 overseas journalists have been accredited to cover the count in Dublin Castle on Saturday, but you wouldn’t have known by the turnout yesterday.

The Taoiseach spoke in front of a backdrop of white drapes suffused in rather bilious green lighting. The gathered cloth hung from metal frames, bent at right angles on either side of the platform, giving the appearance of a large hospital screen.

During the question and answer session, most wanted to ask the Taoiseach if his unpopularity, and that of his Government, is the reason that the Yes camp isn’t further ahead. He replied wearily that this referendum is above “politics as usual”. But it was politics as usual that dominated the exchanges.

A man from the Telegraph wondered if it might not have been better for him to “stand aside” to “clear the way for a Yes”. The Taoiseach replied he had great faith in the “discernment” of the Irish people to deal with Lisbon as a matter of importance.

The event drew to a close with a very quick, and very dull, photocall. In reality yesterday, the big message coming from the Yes camp – from all the main political parties – was a plea to voters to adopt the treaty in spite of the Government. That line was unspoken in the Burlington Hotel, but it was there nonetheless.

Fine Gael and Labour didn’t have to be so circumspect. By all means, they counselled, give the Government a bloody nose. But don’t give yourself one in the process. Hold your fire, keep your powder dry and wait until the general election comes around, said Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore. The Greens remained aloof, concentrating on how ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be good for climate change.

They seemed tired too.

The contrast between Brian Cowen and the two main Opposition leaders was marked. Enda Kenny chose to hold his final press conference on the steps of Dublin’s Mansion House, before setting off on a walkabout down Grafton Street. No walkabouts yesterday from the Taoiseach.

Whatever you do, insisted the Fine Gael leader, don’t use the referendum as an opportunity to attack the Government. “I’m blue in the face explaining to people to hold their fire.”

He had a pep in his step as he pressed the flesh with relish. Maireád McGuinness and George Lee hoovered up the strays. People came up to the Fine Gael leader and shook his hand. Four students from DCU, fresh from Hodges Figgis, presented their new politics textbooks for his signature.

They passed Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Politics, who was enjoying a coffee with his mother, actor Sinead Cusack. The two made headlines before the last election when it was revealed that the actor and the adopted Boyd Barret had only recently been reunited after he went in search of his natural mother. “He’s a very nice guy,” said Fine Gael’s George of socialist Richard.

Not even a busker shouting criticism knocked the happy band off their stride.

It was the same for Eamon Gilmore, who followed the same path a little earlier. By the time he got back to the Merrion Hotel to host Labour’s final press conference, Gilmore was positively giddy.

He echoed Enda’s request to voters not to move against the Government tomorrow. “Friday is not a referendum on Fianna Fáil. On Friday, we vote in the country’s interest. On Saturday, we will return to deal with Fianna Fáil.”

Declan Ganley has no intention of disentangling Lisbon from national politics. For his final photocall and press briefing, his message was clear: three days or three years to get rid of Brian Cowen. It may be lowest common denominator stuff, but a man has to do what a man has to do. And he did it from the middle of a sea of balloons.

At one point during his impromptu press conference on Merrion Square, a fire tender passed by at speed, siren screaming.

“It’s too late Brian!” quipped Ganley. “Rubbish!” retorted a woman walking past.

Towards the end of his remarks, one of the balloons burst. It sounded like a rifle-shot. “Got ’im!” snorted a reporter.

The Libertas founder seized the opportunity to have a pot shot of his own at the Taoiseach. “He even missed! They can’t do anything right.” Then a voice came from the crowd: “At least you’re going out with a bang, Declan.”