Taoiseach's blunder leaves party fighting for survival


ANALYSIS: Brian Cowen’s lack of judgment shows how out of touch he and his colleagues are with national mood

IN ONE of the most astonishing days seen in Dáil Éireann Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s remaining authority was torn to shreds and the Fianna Fáil party he loves left fighting for its very survival in the election on March 11th.

There have been many crazy days in Leinster House down the years but yesterday’s events rank as one of the most bizarre episodes ever seen in the Dáil chamber: a Taoiseach denied his constitutional right to appoint his own Cabinet ministers by his Coalition partners.

While there were some similarities it was very different from the high-octane drama that attended the fall of the Fianna Fáil-Labour Party coalition in 1994 when passions ran high and Albert Reynolds twisted and turned to hold his government together as Dick Spring wielded the knife.

This time around shock, bewilderment and humiliation were written on the faces of Fianna Fáil TDs and Ministers as they listened to the Taoiseach abandon his highly publicised plans to appoint six new Cabinet ministers and instead announce that the election will be held on March 11th.

Why did Cowen do it? That is what his TDs found so difficult to understand. Having survived a motion of confidence at his parliamentary party meeting, he threw away whatever political capital he had managed to salvage in a little more than 24 hours.

The fact that the Taoiseach ever entertained the notion of appointing new ministers in the final weeks of the Government’s life and that five experienced ministers were prepared to go along with the strategy demonstrated just how out of touch they all are with the mood of the country. That he pursued it in the face of opposition from his Coalition partners was political madness.

Cowen insisted last night that a majority of his front bench, his parliamentary party and the organisation was in favour of a decision to appoint six new ministers. Even if this was the case, the lack of political judgment that impelled him to proceed with his plans when it became clear that his Coalition partners were so strongly opposed was astonishing.

The decision to proceed was very reminiscent of Reynolds’s decision to call Dick Spring’s bluff and go ahead with the appointment of Harry Whelehan as president of the High Court in November 1994. Cowen of all people should have known the dangers of forcing a coalition partner into a corner, regardless of who had right on their side.

When rumours first began to circulate on Wednesday evening that a reshuffle might be on the cards, despite the shot across the bows from John Gormley on the RTÉ’s evening news, Fianna Fáil backbenchers couldn’t believe it. Responding to banter about his prospects of promotion one rural TD remarked: “I might have some chance of surviving the election as a humble local TD but if I went back to my constituency in a State car I would be stoned to death.”

One former minister joked yesterday morning: “The lads have all turned off their mobile phones in case they might be offered a Cabinet post.” Those kind of responses imply that many Fianna Fáil TDs knew from the beginning that it was a madcap idea.

Gallows humour was about the only response left for Fianna Fáil TDs as they contemplated the political wreckage yesterday. The look on their faces showed varying levels of shock, anger and sheer despair. Even the Opposition was so stunned that the usual crowing at the discomfiture of a political opponent was distinctly muted.

In the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s debacle there was plenty of wild talk among Fianna Fáil TDs, and even some Ministers, about another attempt to change the leader but whether that will come to anything is a moot point. In any case time is fast running out for a change of leader with an election due in less than two months.

That election will amount to a fight for survival for Fianna Fáil. The party is dangerously close to the position of the Irish Party, which became extinct in 1918 having dominated Irish politics for decades, or the Italian Christian Democrats in the 1990s who expired after running Italy for nearly half a century.

The Irish system of multi-seat proportional representation may save Fianna Fáil from the fate of the Irish Party but there is a critical mass below which it may prove impossible to recover, particularly if it not the biggest party of opposition in the next Dáil.

While a number of recent opinion polls have put Fianna Fáil on the same share of the vote as Sinn Féin it is still widely assumed that when it comes to the election on March 11th the traditional party of power will be comfortably ahead of Sinn Féin in the opposition stakes.

However, things have now got so bad for Fianna Fáil that it may be dangerous to make any assumptions. The party has become such a toxic brand that it is likely to attract very few transfers when the votes are counted. By contrast Sinn Féin’s outright rejection of the EU-IMF bailout may make the party a second home for voters who opt to give their number one to far-left candidates or even those who vote for populist candidates coming from a right-wing anti-EU perspective.

If the polls during the election campaign continue to show Sinn Féin level with, or even ahead of, Fianna Fáil then the unthinkable could happen and Gerry Adams would end up the leader of the biggest opposition party in the Dáil. That is still an unlikely prospect but not nearly as unlikely as most political observers would have believed just a few months ago.

Fianna Fáil now has to find some way of picking itself up and devising a coherent battle plan. If it doesn’t find a way to do it quickly then Irish politics may be facing an even greater transformational moment on March 11th than anybody had imagined.

Stephen Collins is Political Editor

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