FF teetering on brink of oblivion as Taoiseach's failings exposed

Sat, Jan 22, 2011, 00:00

Despite remaining in office, Cowen’s reckless Coalition management means that he has been stripped of all power

IN FIANNA Fáil lore, there is great pride in the fact that over the course of its 85-year history the party has overcome many challenges and seen off many opponents. At the time of its birth in the late 1920s, Fianna Fáil’s founding fathers had to contend with the enduring antagonism of the Catholic Church and other establishment institutions. Having withstood the political pressure during the Anglo-Irish economic war in the mid-1930s, the party then saw off the Blueshirts in the late 1930s.

Having charted the country, with some luck, through the Emergency of the second World War, Fianna Fáil faced down the young pretender Clann Na Poblachta in the late 1940s. The Arms Crisis in the early 1970s, the political calamities of the Haughey Gubu years in the early 1980s, the emergence of the Progressive Democrats breakaway later in that decade and the divisions flowing from Albert Reynolds’s “night of the long knives” in the early 1990s all threatened to divide or damage the party.

In even more recent times controversies over Bertie Ahern’s finances caused initial fears for the party’s support base. It is remarkable that having withstood all of this and more, Fianna Fáil still thrived and achieved electoral success on a scale rivalled by only a handful of parties in the democratic world.

It is even more remarkable that now a combination of acute economic crisis and disastrous political management has brought Fianna Fáil to the brink of oblivion.

Any Fianna Fáil TD who feels the need to take soundings in his or her constituency this weekend is likely to be met with a silent scream of anger. This week most voters were trying to absorb the additional cuts in their pay or welfare payments while they watched and listened to farcical political events.

The public response has been one initially of bemusement but then of fury. Just when its remaining support was already so vulnerable, Fianna Fáil has shot itself in the foot. All hope of being in government after the election was long gone, but now it looks increasingly likely that the party will play second fiddle to Sinn Féin on the Opposition benches.

The week started very badly for Fianna Fáil and then got worse – and worse again. Brian Cowen made the wrong decision last Sunday when he decided to stay on as leader and his parliamentary party made the wrong decision on Tuesday night when they supported him in doing so.

Fianna Fáil should this weekend be making some attempt at a recovery with a new leader; instead it is reeling, traumatised and incoherent about how to respond to the latest political crisis.

By all accounts, Cowen probed deeply in his extensive “consultations” with TDs last weekend. He pressed even those who immediately promised him support to be candid with him – asking them if they thought an alternative leader’s face on the poster would improve their chances in their particular constituency.

Some of the serial dissidents were blunt; others pulled their punches because they were too timid or too polite to tell him straight that he had to go.

Even under cover of the secrecy of the ballot, the majority of the parliamentary party voted to retain him as leader by a margin which some suggest was as high as two to one. One of the key determinants of the outcome was the difficulty which most deputies saw in changing the party leader so close to the election.

Fianna Fáil deputies were nervous that having different people as party leader and Taoiseach would create a tense “cohabitation”. They worried in particular that such an arrangement might create open conflict at leadership level and precipitate an even earlier election. In the overall scheme of things, these should have been relatively trivial considerations.

There were other more compelling reasons why Cowen should have been deposed.

It has been obvious for months now to many in and around Government and many observing politics closely that the Cowen political thought processes and the system around him as leader are dysfunctional.

He has no access to, nor ear for, strategic political advice. He has no interest in, nor feel for, the media. He has no respect for, or belief in, polling data.

He is indifferent to the need for delicate party and Coalition management.

These fault lines were apparent long before last Tuesday. It is ironic that they should be exposed so starkly only 24 hours after he was affirmed in post.

One can see why, in theory, the idea of asking Ministers who are not contesting the next election to retire is an attractive one. Replacing them with new faces would have done something to freshen up and strengthen Fianna Fáil’s line-up of spokespersons for the election campaign.

In practice, however, the move was always going to be controversial. The public were either going to see it as refreshing or cynical. In this environment, they were more likely to see it as the latter.

The larger the number of resignations and replacements, the greater should have been the care in seeking to manage it. At 9pm on Wednesday, the news broke that Mary Harney was resigning.

Overnight, word emerged that Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern and Tony Killeen, who had not been asked to step down when they announced they would not contest the election, were now also resigning as Ministers.

Then at 10am on Thursday, word came through that Batt O’Keeffe was also resigning. Some Ministers apparently first heard of this latter decision on the radio.

While some effort appears to have been made to discuss the matter with the Greens at a meeting dealing with the climate change legislation on Wednesday morning, the two party delegations came away with different interpretations of what had or had not been agreed. Cowen, Chief Whip John Curran and Killeen concluded that the Greens would not oppose the reshuffle.

However, it was clear to anyone listening to Gormley being interviewed by Bryan Dobson on Wednesday evening that the issue of replacing Ministers had not been put to them as a serious proposition and if it was, they were unlikely to accept it.

The onus falls on the Taoiseach to ensure such things are squared.

The difficulties caused by Cowen’s reckless Coalition management style were further compounded by the failure to manage the announcements of the Cabinet retirements and to address the matter himself in the Dáil at Leaders’ Questions on Thursday. The farcical scenes in Leinster House on that morning both inside and outside the chamber are attributable to gross errors made by the Taoiseach himself.

As stated earlier, the replacement of retiring ministers was always going to be controversial. Six simultaneous resignations were always going to be destabilising. Replacing them without adequate consultation with his Coalition partners was just asking for trouble.

The two most significant powers that a taoiseach has are those of appointing ministers and of seeking a dissolution of the Dáil and thereby setting the date for an election. In modern coalition government, a taoiseach must of course negotiate with coalition partners in making these decisions, but these are still prime ministerial prerogatives for him.

Brian Cowen was stripped of all remaining power on Wednesday. He could not appoint new ministers and had to concede the date of the election in order to avoid an immediate collapse.

He is now in office and not in power.

The failure of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party to remove Cowen as leader last Tuesday suggests that while they have rationalised that the party faces electoral collapse, they had not as yet internalised it.

Until Thursday morning, many of them were in denial. This weekend they are forced to accept the depressing realities.

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