Fianna Fáil convulsions


THE FIANNA Fáil leadership issue will now be brought to a conclusion. Brian Cowen put it up to his critics, particularly Micheál Martin, to put or shut up. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, who monopolised the media headlines over the weekend, saying nothing himself but spinning through close sources that he had called on the Taoiseach to resign as leader, was forced out into the open. He is to vote against Mr Cowen at tomorrow’s parliamentary party meeting. He said he offered to resign as a Minister yesterday but that Mr Cowen would not accept it. It is interesting that Mr Martin has emerged as the challenger while Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin have only indicated an interest in the Fianna Fáil leadership.

The Taoiseach played a blinder in his press conference after a 48-hour consultation period with his parliamentary party last evening. But it was notable that he was accompanied by only one Minister in his Cabinet, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, and Chief Whip John Curran.

His message was courageous, open and democratic. He would break all of the conventional rules, he said, and table a motion of confidence in himself.

He hit the right note by stating that his decision to stay on as Taoiseach was in the interests of the country, not the party.

He had confidence in the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting, he said, and, to his credit, unlike under his predecessor Charles Haughey on a former occasion, it will be held by secret ballot.

For anyone who knows Mr Cowen, his decision was not surprising. Unlike his predecessors in office, he would have been deeply wounded that the final catalyst to remove him from the office of Taoisecah would be suggestions of impropriety. He was never going to resign in such circumstances.

But the latest outbreak of Seán FitzPatrick stories and Anglo Irish Bank was just the final straw for a party which is convulsed by the circumstances in which it finds itself at the doors of public opinion. Fianna Fáil is in crisis. The danger to the party is that it is living in a bubble. It does not have a real read on the extent and, more importantly, the reasons, why the public feels so let down.

The election of a new leader may have some small effect on Fianna Fáil’s opinion poll ratings. Things could hardly be worse.

And in this general context, the decision by the Labour Party to table a motion of no confidence in the Government could not have been more ill-judged or ill-timed.

It probably worked to Mr Cowen’s advantage that he could tell colleagues that he would have the support of Independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae, whereas a new Fianna Fáil leader would not.

As political events unfold, it might be in the national interest for Fine Gael and Labour to agree that they would guillotine the Finance Bill through the Dáil and Seanad – if their primary aim is to have a general election as soon as possible.