After only three weeks, Micheál Martin has created powerful enemies who will come back to haunt him
Government and Fianna Fáil have suffered political damage from Barry Cowen sacking
Barry Cowen with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin outside Leinster House. File photograph: Collins
Ministerial resignations and sackings can sometimes be terminal for a government. But usually they are not. Those still in government have too much to lose. They feel sorry for their departed colleague, but politics can be a brutally unsentimental business.
The sacking of minister for agriculture Barry Cowen on Tuesday night does not immediately threaten the future of the three-week-old coalition Government. It has not driven a wedge between the parties – according to people at the centre of Government, there was no push from Fine Gael or the Greens for Cowen’s head, something that might have produced a very different reaction in Fianna Fáil.
The decision, it seems, was Micheál Martin’s – taken quickly on Tuesday afternoon once Cowen had made clear he was not willing to go into the Dáil to answer questions. Martin kept his Government partners informed, but neither pressured him on the issue. It was Fianna Fáil’s problem; it was Fianna Fáil’s solution.
The second reason that the sacking of Cowen does not threaten the future of the Government is that the interests of all three parties in the coalition are overwhelmingly served by regaining its equilibrium and getting on with the business of governing.
You can make an argument that any or all of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens would have been better off not joining the Government. People in Fine Gael, right to the top, could see the case for staying out. Lots of people in the Green Party thought the same. Even in Fianna Fáil, desperate for government after its longest period ever in opposition, more than one-quarter of its members were not convinced by the tripartite coalition. And even if the case for staying out was not a terribly convincing argument, it was nevertheless a coherent one.
But having made the decision to enter Government, having duly adopted a programme and constructed an administration, it is now beyond question that it is in the interests of the three parties to make it work.
Look at it another way – if the coalition collapsed and the country was pitched into another general election campaign, do you think the three parties would be enhanced or diminished by that? Not a very hard question to answer, is it? Barring a fundamental breach of trust between the parties, or an undermining of their agreed programme, they have to stick together.
The public tends to have a more detached view of political scandals than the Leinster House bubble, where the fate of ministerial careers assumes an outsized importance. Mostly the public just wants a government to get on with the business of government – the delivery and improvement of public services, the management of the pandemic, and so on – rather than absorb itself in its own dramas.
There is a corollary to this. Governments that are clearly moving forward with the business of government, that are tackling and solving problems, implementing their agenda, building forward momentum towards defined goals – they tend to be less susceptible to derailment by scandals of the day. If a government has other important things to talk about, it doesn’t just have time to talk about its own problems. At the moment it feels as if this stuttering administration is very far indeed from that.
There is no question that the Government – and Fianna Fáil especially – has suffered political damage from the Cowen sacking. It is at the very least careless for Martin not to have satisfied himself that the rumours flying around about Cowen before his appointment were not grounded in truth that could become problematic for the new Government. Did he ask his proposed ministerial appointees any questions? What other delights might await us?
The political management of the controversy – allowing Cowen to make a statement to the Dáil that was at least incomplete and backing his refusal to answer questions – compounded the damage to the minister and his Government. And the general uncertainty and lack of direction of the administration in his first weeks – starkly illuminated by the mini-revolt in Fianna Fáil over ministerial appointments – have been as unnecessary as they have been perplexing.
One further consequence of the sacking for the Taoiseach is that he now has another enemy in his parliamentary party – and a powerful one, too, with significant clout in the wider party organisation.
Over a period in office, all taoisigh assemble a cohort of opponents in their own party – the disappointed, the overlooked, the slighted, the sacked, the terminally disaffected. Martin has them after three weeks in the job. At some point, that will come back to haunt him.
But political damage, like its opposite, political capital, is a largely unquantifiable commodity, which ebbs and flows in response to events. The Government will be judged by the public not on the promotion or demotion of its own personnel, but on its material performance, the delivery of its objectives, its management of the pandemic and of the economic consequences that flow from it.
But the Government seems determined to make these tasks harder for itself. They were difficult enough to begin with.