Party discipline goes out the window in Fianna Fáil's very public implosion


Even those who said they would go to hell and back for Cowen were a picture of misery

MELTDOWN. FRANTIC scenes in Leinster House yesterday. Stunned, utterly stunned, Fianna Fáil Ministers and backbenchers rushed from the Dáil chamber. They spilled across the landing outside, a noisy and chaotic mass of anger and confusion.

Little huddles formed. Anxious deputies rushed from one group to another, whispering urgently. Fear mixed with fury – you could almost touch it. They surrounded Micheál Martin, the man who moved against Brian Cowen on Sunday. Brian Lenihan joined the ferment. Fevered representations began. In their distraction, the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party couldn’t care less who saw them.

Astonished journalists crowded into the no-man’s land between that landing and the press gallery. They watched the unfolding drama from a few feet away. It was electrifying. Nobody went near the stricken politicians. For this was the moment when the party dropped all pretence of unity and cohesion. Discipline went out the window. Fianna Fáil was disintegrating in front of our eyes. Some deputies appeared on the verge of tears. This was a very public implosion.

John McGuinness, long time critic of the Taoiseach, stood to one side, observing the scene. “I’ve read about those famous pivotal events in Leinster House history, occasions of huge drama that go down in history, and here was another. What was happening was sensational. I just wanted to stand back and observe,” he said.

Minutes earlier, they had listened with mounting despair as their Taoiseach sought to justify his crass attempt at a Cabinet reshuffle. They could not believe what they were hearing.

“We will go to the country with a strong front bench,” he bullishly told the Dáil. The Opposition hooted in derision. His own colleagues, even those who once said they would go to hell and back for their Brian, were a picture of misery.

In the middle of it all, the Taoiseach announced the election date. Almost as an aside.

Enda Kenny raised his eyes to heaven, then slowly leaned forward and rested his arms on the ledge in front of him. He slowly exhaled. He knew what this meant. Afterwards, he led his front bench on to the plinth for a press conference, as Eamon Gilmore had done minutes before him. Both now fighting a general election.

Enda did his piece and returned to his office. How did you feel when you heard that date? “At long last, I thought. At. Long. Last.” He looked drained.

In the house, when the Taoiseach finished his abysmal explanation, his troops couldn’t disguise their disgust. Cowen resumed his seat, deflated, to the resounding sound of silence from the benches behind.

And that’s when the frenetic exodus began. What in God’s name had he been thinking? Did he really believe that an orchestrated resignation of nearly half of his Cabinet ministers to be replaced by “fresher” faces would cod a few gullible voters to rally to the cause? The news of this blatant wheeze to exploit high public office for cheap political gain shocked the most ardent Cowen supporters. What’s more, it hit them like a ton of bricks when the resignation announcements broke on Wednesday night.

BY YESTERDAYmorning, Government deputies were in a daze. Rumour ran riot, as is always the way, but this time, the crestfallen TDs were not inclined to scotch the stories. They wondered which of them had received calls and promises of ministerial jobs. Jobs that none of them now wanted.

“If Brian Cowen rings me, I’m not f****** answering the phone,” one likely contender told us. “I’m dreading a call,” said another.

A picture began to emerge of late-night ring arounds of deputies by the Taoiseach and his few remaining Cabinet allies. Who to believe? Such was the rush to distance themselves from the Cowen contagion, deputies – or people close to them – were queuing up to brief journalists that they had been offered jobs, but turned them down.

One word kept surfacing, uttered by all sides: delusional.

What does one make, for example, of Cowen’s phone call yesterday morning to maverick backbencher Ned O’Keeffe, long a thorn in his side. Ned went on radio saying he would not support any move to create six new ministers. Not long after his interview, the Taoiseach phoned to express his displeasure.

Meanwhile, sources close to Minster of State for Children Barry Andrews confirmed that he got a call from Cowen with the offer of a Cabinet post – justice. Andrews turned him down, saying he was happy where he was and was anxious to press ahead on the referendum for children’s rights.

Shift to the chamber. Cowen, still fighting for his political life, when all around him knew the game was up. Former minister Noel Dempsey now sitting with the backbenchers. Noel, who went out to bat so many times for his boss, had a final fling on Morning Ireland, indicating that the idea to promote young faces had been agreed weeks ago.

For a second time (he famously denied the IMF-EU bailout) Dempsey was left with egg on his face after the Taoiseach’s spin machine put it about that the move was only hatched recently.

Meanwhile, the Greens were in conclave. During the morning, Ciarán Cuffe left Leinster House to attend a meeting. He was surrounded by camera crews and journalists. Cuffe looked straight ahead, saying nothing. Such was the scrum, both the RTÉ and TV3 cameramen crashed heavily to the ground. He kept walking.

At teatime, the party broke its silence. They would have lived with a couple of replacement ministers, but they couldn’t live with the plan to install six new faces and attendant juniors.

They weren’t even kept in the loop. John Gormley didn’t know the full story until yesterday morning. He was clearly puzzled by the mass resignations – hadn’t Dermot Ahern rang him after his appearance on Wednesday’s evening news to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he was more than up to his job. Gormley had suggested that, due to his recent hospitalisation, it would be understandable if Ahern resigned.

Then the Green Party leader met Mary Harney in a corridor in Government Buildings. She never let on either that she would be resigning in a couple of hours.

Gormley stopped short of accusing Cowen of lying. Cowen, on yet another live television appearance, blamed the Greens for his problems. Then, bizarrely, he said he had to uphold the honour of the Fianna Fáil party.

As for the aborted Cabinet reshuffle, he said his party and front bench supported it and he was “reflecting” their views.

He wouldn’t have said that had he seen the scenes outside the doors of the Dáil chamber.

One rural backbencher summed up what he saw as the madness of the plan to remove the old faces before the election: “Ya can’t get eagles out of wrens’ nests.” Others might go for the old gag: Names changed to protect the guilty.

Pandemonium all day in the chamber. The Opposition beseeching the Ceann Comhairle to suspend the morning’s proceedings to get some clarity on the shambles from an absent Taoiseach. The Ceann Comhairle saying he couldn’t order a suspension unless there was “gross misconduct”. Whereupon, in a made for measure You Tube moment, the Opposition, aided by Government backbenchers, did their best to oblige.

Eventually, Séamus Kirk suspended the House until lunchtime, when Cowen appeared to defend the embarrassing and humiliating reality of his botched reshuffle. By this stage, he had lost the confidence of his troops. Forty-eight hours after they voted confidence in him, they were ruing their decision.

The rest is history.

Cowen is clinging to power by his fingertips. His deputies don’t want him anywhere near their campaign trails.

There was talk of Ministers going to Cowen to tell him to withdraw. Martin was the focus of backbench attention. Brian Lenihan was said to have gone to him and read the riot act. Mary Hanafin’s people said she had been pleading with him all day to see reason. Nobody trusts anybody now. It’s every man and woman for themselves.

Biffo says he will continue until March 11th. His deputies are saying he lost the run of himself after winning the confidence motion. Fianna Fáil is devouring itself. There’s been a fabulous full moon the last few nights. Draw your own conclusions.