Working relationship comes to inglorious end as Green patience finally wears out

Mon, Jan 24, 2011, 00:00

BACKGROUND:As momentous events unfolded, the Greens had a channel open to Fine Gael that helped enable their exit from Government

BRIAN COWEN rose to leave the Dáil on Thursday afternoon. He had just experienced perhaps his most humiliating day in his political career – an abject climbdown on Cabinet reshuffle that left his Government, as Michael Noonan put it, running out on the pitch with only half a team.

As he prepared to leave the chamber, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan – sitting two places away on the Government front benches – leaned over and said that Cowen should convene an urgent meeting of the parliamentary party to discuss the damage of the day. Cowen did not respond. One figure close to him said he knew even then, though he would not publicly admit it, that the game was up.

Elsewhere on the Leinster House campus, Fianna Fáil TDs had been meeting in huddles all day. Micheál Martin joined one group to discuss the extraordinary events that were unfolding. “You will be the shortest-lived backbencher in history,” one TD quipped to him.

Later that evening, Cowen tried to defend his position on RTÉ’s Six One News.“You could see that he was hurting,” said a close colleague. “The fight just wasn’t in him.”

And then a strange, muted silence descended upon Fianna Fáil that lasted throughout Friday. There was no effort to start another heave and collect 18 signatures. None of the TDs who spoke to The Irish Timeson Friday had contacted Cowen, or indeed had contacted other party members. But many of the party moderates now believed the game had changed.

While no overt pressure was placed on Cowen on Friday, Martin and Lenihan both made public their views that the circumstances had been turned on their head. Martin urged moderates to reconsider their position in the light of the debacle that had unfolded the previous day. Former finance minister and EU commissioner Ray MacSharry said his attitude as the leader of Fianna Fáil needed to be supported and defended but he added a caveat that had an unmistakable undertone: “With that defence and that loyalty comes responsibility for the leader to know what he or she should do in the interests of themselves and the party.”

The ordinary business of Government continued on Friday. That meant a trip to Armagh by Cowen and most of the remaining Ministers to announce a joint motorway project with the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Ministers – Cowen, Mary Coughlan, Pat Carey, Brendan Smith, Mary Hanafin and Eamon Ryan from the Green Party – abandoned their ministerial cars at the Border and were ferried by minibus to Armagh. The atmosphere in the bus was surprisingly light-hearted and jovial. However, what had happened the day before never made it into the badinage.

The engagement in the North finished at 3pm. Instead of returning to Dublin, Cowen decided he would go home to Tullamore, Co Offaly. “I guessed then what he was thinking,” said one of those present.

That night, Cowen sat down in his kitchen with his wife and family and pondered the implications the unfolding events had for his position. He spoke to one of his closest senior supporters. “He didn’t tell me at that stage anyway that he was thinking of going,” he said.

By early the next morning, Cowen had decided that he would go. He rang key officials before 9am. They gathered in Government Buildings and began drafting his script. They included all his key advisers – Eoghan Ó Neachtain; Peter Clinch; Deirdre Gillane; Gerry Steadman; Brian Murphy; Pádraig Slyne and Cillian Fennell. Cowen left Tullamore shortly after 11am and arrived to met his team just after noon. At the same time, the Fianna Fáil press office was sending out the press notice.

The press conference itself was muted. “I have decided on my own counsel to step down as leader of Fianna Fáil,” he said.

Since Cowen’s resignation on Saturday, the junior partner the Greens had also been trying to come to terms with the unreal new situation they had now faced. “We were numbed too. We had thought the leadership issue had been closed. It wasn’t. And trust had just totally disappeared,” said one. Cowen’s departure was the logical conclusion of the Greens’ ultimatum on the reshuffle. But now they began thinking about an endgame.

Eamon Ryan was looking at Cowen’s press conference live on television and felt he had to do something. The relationship between the two partners in Government had been deteriorating since last autumn. Back then, Ryan had – with the agreement of his party – opened up what was described as a “backchannel” with Fine Gael to discuss matters of mutual concern.

The contact was Simon Coveney, the Cork South Central TD. He had marked Ryan in Energy and earlier both had been on committees together and trusted each other. Indeed, Ryan had also tried to establish a similar backchannel with Labour but his efforts had been repelled.

Ryan rang Coveney and asked what the possibility was of Fine Gael backing the Finance Bill, if the Government managed to get it quickly through the Dáil. The main obstacles to its speedy passage were the motions of confidence tabled separately by Fine Gael and by Labour.

Coveney contacted finance spokesman Michael Noonan and party leader Enda Kenny. Both agreed to it and Noonan appeared on the Six One News to confirm that Fine Gael would withdraw the no confidence motion if the Bill was pushed through by Friday. Ryan also rang Brian Lenihan four times yesterday to see if he was amenable to a truncated Bill. Lenihan was cool on the idea, saying that it could not be done by Friday.

The Green Party TDs and Senators became involved in an intensive telephone conference to discuss the fallout from Cowen’s resignation. The group reached a decision that the party must exit Government.

The Greens converged in Government Buildings yesterday morning and met in the office of programme manager Dónall Geoghegan. They confirmed the exit strategy and broke before 2pm for lunch. The party’s press officer in Government, John Downing, began drafting the speech that John Gormley would deliver at 3.30pm.

In his statement, Gormley soon focused on why the relationship had fractured irreparably. It was grindingly obvious, given all that had happened in the preceding days: “Our patience has reached an end. There’s a lack of communication and a breakdown in trust. We have decided that we can no longer continue in Government.”

From their perspective, the crucial moment had come when Cowen had decided to press ahead with a reshuffle without consulting the partners. “What cut us to the quick was that Cowen thought he could bypass convention and somehow override our concerns by forcing resignations and creating vacancies,” said one. “That was not on.”

But like Fianna Fáil, the Greens found themselves in a sticky political situation. There were no neat solutions. There were no easy fixes. And the party that prided itself on principle, that prided itself on never putting the gun to the head of the other partner in Government, had to abandon at least some of those lofty goals for politics.

The party which was staying in Government to ensure the passage of the Finance Bill was bailing out to pursue a high-risk strategy that might – or might not – secure the passage of the Bill.

The political problems for the Greens were the tricky motions of confidence and the dangers of staying too long in the highly toxic wasteland that was once the coalition. Plus, they had a sense of betrayal too.

Everybody agreed the election would take place much sooner than March 11th. Paradoxically, as it happened, it actually made a reality of the much-mocked announcement of the Greens on November 23rd that they wanted a January election.