Sharp decision on Cowen will return focus to election


INSIDE POLITICS:Retaining the Taoiseach has pros and cons. Stuck in administration mode, the Government is badly neglecting leadership

WHEN ALL the political frenzy is boiled down and emotion stripped away, Brian Cowen and his TDs have a simple calculation to make this weekend: does Fianna Fáil stand a better chance of survival with or without him as leader going into the election?

The logical answer is that the short-term prospects for the party could not possibly be worse under a new leader and there is some chance that they might be slightly better. The only argument for Cowen remaining on is that he would act as a lightning rod for all the pent-up anger felt by the electorate at the country’s plight. Once the voters have vented their frustrations on Cowen in an election, a new leader might be able to pick up the pieces and rebuild the party.

The problem with this argument is that with Cowen remaining as leader the outcome of the election might be so bad Fianna Fáil would suffer the kind of meltdown that would undermine its capacity to survive as a viable political entity. Fianna Fáil is now a toxic political brand and the party’s TDs need to think long and hard this weekend about what they need to do to convince traditional supporters there is still a reason to vote for it in the election. The question is whether enough TDs are prepared to tell Cowen it is time to go. At times it seems the majority are simply resigned to their fate and don’t want to go through the trauma of telling a man for whom they have genuine affection and respect they no longer have confidence in him.

After the parliamentary party meeting on Thursday it looked as if Cowen’s critics simply didn’t have the nerve to take him on. The process of consultation he proposed has given them a second chance, if they wish to take it.

One critical issue is whether any of the potential alternative leaders has the nerve to make a move. Micheál Martin has hinted backbenchers should be blunt with their leader but he has not declared his own hand and that has led to doubts among his supporters.

Mary Hanafin has given a stronger hint she will tell Cowen to go but, again, she has not come out openly in opposition to the leader. Brian Lenihan has not given any indication of his views but his brother Conor has been open about his belief Cowen should step down.

One of the problems is that Martin and Lenihan do not appear to repose great confidence in each other and each of them might be happier to see Cowen remain if they thought the other was likely to succeed. That raises the question of whether the best option for Fianna Fáil is to pick a new leader for the immediate future, just fight the election campaign, or make a decision on the longer-term leader.

This is where there appears to be a divergence of views among potential contenders. Martin and Hanafin clearly see themselves leading the party not just in the forthcoming election but for the foreseeable future and on to the next election in four or five years. Lenihan appears to be offering himself as a leader for this election who will step aside later to allow the party to pick a new leader from the younger generation for the long haul of rebuilding the party.

There are obvious pluses and minuses about the three contenders. Martin is popular with his colleagues and has a strong base in Munster but his indecision during his seven years as minister for health is an issue for colleagues. Hanafin has displayed competence in every department in which she has worked but she does not have the same level of experience as Martin and is perceived as having been too eager to get away from social affairs when tough decisions were required.

Lenihan would have been the popular favourite to succeed six months ago but his star has waned as a result of the EU-IMF bailout and his Cabinet colleagues are still smarting from being kept in the dark in the run-up to that dramatic event.

The chances of each of the three main contenders is likely to hinge on which of them, if any, has the nerve to make a clear bid for the leadership. If they all content themselves with manoeuvring in the background, a majority of backbenchers is unlikely to tell Cowen it is time to go and the party will stumble into the election with the Taoiseach as leader. One of the perceived problems about a change of leader is that he, or she, might not have the numbers to be elected taoiseach. That would leave Cowen as acting taoiseach with a new Fianna Fáil leader to fight the campaign. While that would be an odd position, it might not cause as much difficulty as some people in the political world think.

One of the problems about being in power continuously for more than 13 years is that most of the senior figures in Fianna Fáil have been removed from reality for a long time and are addicted to the process of administration rather than leadership.

The reluctance to face up to the imperative of an immediate election is another indication of a Government obsessed with process. The belief in Government that an election cannot be held until late March or early April because of the constraints imposed by the need to get a Finance Bill through the Dáil just does not hold water.

The country is crying out for an election as soon as possible and there is no reason why a short Finance Bill cannot be got through in the next two weeks or alternatively left until after a general election, when it could be introduced by a new government. It is in the interests of Fianna Fáil and the country that matters are brought to a head as quickly as possible and an election held without further delay.

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