GUBU is back as Cowen presses self-destruct button


ANALYSIS:Fianna Fáil TDs were too stunned to contemplate an immediate heave against Cowen but the mood could change over the weekend

WHEN A boxer takes a hard punch to the jaw, the initial reaction is one of being shocked and stunned: that was the demeanour of most Fianna Fáil deputies in the aftermath of yesterday’s debacle in the Dáil.

Worse still, the haymaker blow had been administered, not by Enda Kenny or Eamon Gilmore but by their very own Taoiseach and party leader, Brian Cowen.

The parallels with the final days of the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in the early 1990s were positively uncanny.

A stubborn and headstrong Taoiseach took a unilateral decision and stuck to it initially, despite the protests of the smaller party, but was then forced into a humiliating public climbdown.

The one happy note for Mr Cowen was that he backed away from his self-destructive course of action just in time to save the Government, at least for now.

In an extraordinary day, the most startling revelation came when Green Party leader John Gormley said he heard about the resignations of one-third of the Cabinet and the Taoiseach’s apparent intention to replace them forthwith only on the 7am news yesterday.

It is true that, last November, the Greens were themselves guilty of withholding their declaration of intent to pull out of government from their partners until the last minute.

The relationship between the parties has never been the same. “The Greens are our enemy,” said a Fianna Fáil backbencher, more in sorrow than in anger.

Fianna Fáil people are normally fairly discreet in the presence of the media but the open and public gathering of Dáil deputies at the head of the stairs outside the Dáil chamber after Cowen’s lunchtime announcement reflected the deep state of dismay.

Minister of State Conor Lenihan stoked the fires of dissent but his colleagues were wary of flocking to his standard. One of the Taoiseach’s most ardent internal critics dismissed his protestations as a move to embarrass his running-mate in Dublin South West, Charlie O’Connor, a Cowen loyalist.

Another long-time dissident, also speaking on a background basis, said wearily that Mr Cowen’s fate was now a matter for party activists back in the constituencies. If a groundswell developed over the weekend, the TDs would take it from there.

It was a measure of the misjudgment on the part of the Taoiseach that it even demoralised his sharpest critics, causing them to wonder if there was any point in trying to save a party that had been brought to such a low ebb.

In an otherwise problematic week for Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin, she can at least claim to have tried to avert disaster with her advice to Cowen in the morning that, as she put it, “he should not fill the vacancies and preferably that the people who offered their resignations should not resign”.

Senior party figures who would be expected to figure prominently in any move against the Taoiseach were understood to be keeping their counsel. Sources close to Micheál Martin, fresh from his failed challenge, said he just wanted to “get a night’s sleep”.

Nor was there any sign of rebellion from the Brian Lenihan camp, whatever his younger brother might be saying. Sources close to the Minister for Finance said he was taking a “vow of silence” over the leadership – and who can blame him after the brickbats thrown at him by colleagues following his radio interview with RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke last Tuesday? There hasn’t been a day like it in Leinster House since the collapse of the Reynolds-Spring administration in 1994 or even the ministerial sackings in the 1970 arms crisis.

Despite its internal turmoil over the years, Fianna Fáil generally managed to maintain a semblance of unity. This crumbled yesterday: lifetime party loyalists were angry and appalled in equal proportion.

There was also a high degree of puzzlement: after the triumphant vindication of his leadership on Tuesday night, how could the Taoiseach go from hero to zero in such a short space of time? Quietly but insistently, questions were even starting to surface as to whether Mr Cowen himself would want to continue as leader, although the balance of opinion was that, in the spirit of Samuel Beckett, he would say: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

His deputies were starting to query the Taoiseach’s reputation as a highly-intelligent political operator, on the basis that you wouldn’t run a sweet shop using the methods he employed in the last 48 hours, much less a modern coalition government. It was, in the infamous words of Charles J Haughey, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. GUBU is back.