They are where they are now

 

‘WE ARE where we are now’, said Ned O’Keeffe, a supporter of Micheál Martin. That just about calls it correctly for Fianna Fáil. Brian Cowen has, once again, been offered qualified support as Taoiseach and as leader of Fianna Fáil by his parliamentary colleagues. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Martin, felt honour-bound finally to resign for mounting a challenge and it has been accepted. But, the whole sorry episode resolves nothing. At this stage, the public is so angry and disillusioned by economic mismanagement and the shenanigans of government ministers that it doesn’t really care who leads Fianna Fáil. People just want an early general election.

The confidence in Mr Cowen’s leadership has more to do with the machinations of his would-be successors than his own intrinsic appeal within the party. Rumblings of dissent have grown ever-louder since the party was routed in the 2009 local and European elections. Promises of improved communications and more assertive public performances were submerged by a worsening fiscal situation that culminated in the EU/IMF bailout and embarrassing revelations concerning Fianna Fáil’s relations with the banking sector. As might be expected, public support for the party went into free-fall and vulnerable backbenchers panicked.

It is unclear to what extent Mr Cowen and his supporters manipulated his would-be successors. Playing off Micheál Martin and Brian Cowen against one another certainly bought time, as Brian Lenihan, Mary Hanafin and Éamon Ó Cuív appeared to compete for supporting roles. They didn’t do themselves any favours in the current controversy. When all is said and done,they probably did more damage to their leadership prospects than Mr Martin.

A new year opinion poll and the threat of electoral wipe-out pushed Mr Martin into the latest challenge for the top job. He was forestalled by brilliant defensive tactics. Over a number of days, Mr Cowen consulted widely within the parliamentary party. Then he announced a break with tradition by offering a secret ballot on his leadership. Rather than allow Mr Martin build his leadership campaign on the impetus of a successful challenge, Mr Lenihan found that duty required him to support the Taoiseach who, he said, had backed him in Finance. It was all over, bar the shouting.

The outcome of the confidence motion is that Mr Cowen will lead Fianna Fáil into, and through, the general election campaign. Mr Martin will leave the Cabinet and his responsibilities will be allocated elsewhere. It is important that we have a competent Minister for Foreign Affairs in the EU at this time.

It became quite clear throughout the challenge that Mr Cowen believes Fianna Fáil needs a fighter in the forthcoming general election. He would be grossly mis-reading the political tea leaves if he thought however that Fianna Fáil could repeat the success of the 2007 campaign. The anger out there is palpable. The Opposition parties should guillotine the passage of the Finance Bill and bring on the election.