Fianna Fáil’s fall from grace

For most Irish people, the internal leadership contest within Fianna Fáil was nothing more than the last sting of a dying wasp. Guardian January 19 2011

In the end, the taoiseach, Brian Cowen, comfortably won the battle for leadership of a party languishing in the mid-teens of the opinion polls. The minister for foreign affairs, Micheál Martin, was the only challenger and after the vote was announced the Cork South Central MP resigned from the cabinet immediately.

“So now the fuss is over – vote was 2-1 in favour of Brian Cowen … secret of course” was the tweet by Mary O’Rourke MP, the aunt of the minister for finance, Brian Lenihan. How times have changed for a party that won 41% of the national vote at the 2007 general election.

Just six months ago, Lenihan was easily the most popular politician in Ireland. His economic plan and strong leadership gave confidence to a financially battered public who then had no idea that the worst was still to come.

The Fianna Fáil leadership contest was precipitated by revelations that the taoiseach had played golf with the chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Seán FitzPatrick, in July 2008. Although Anglo was then on the verge of collapse, Cowen told the Dáil that he was “just shooting the breeze” with FitzPatrick and never discussed banking matters with him.

Golfgate, as it is now known, occurred just three months before the government offered a blanket bank guarantee over all €440bn of Irish bank liabilities. This decision not only damaged the government’s credit rating but led ultimately to the €85bn bailout by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Lenihan, widely perceived as Cowen’s successor, described Golfgate and other incidents as “lapses of judgment”. His public declaration for the taoiseach on RTE lunchtime radio on Tuesday surprised many. Three Fianna Fáil backbenchers subsequently confirmed in public that Lenihan had “encouraged” them to move against the taoiseach.

The minister for tourism, culture and sport, Mary Hanafin, was also touted as a potential challenger. She failed to publicly declare her voting intentions before the secret ballot but announced at lunchtime today that she voted against the Taoiseach. “Cowen, the dead duck; Martin the lame duck; Hanafin the gutless duck; and Lenihan, the superior duck who shot himself in the foot” was how Miriam Lord of the Irish Times summed up the failed coup.

In the short term, the internal upheaval within Fianna Fáil was nothing more than political theatre for a deeply angry public. The consequences of the December budget, which introduced a harsh fiscal adjustment of €6bn, was revealed in the January paychecks of Irish citizens.

The polite debates in Irish media all weekend between Martin and Cowen on the future direction of Fianna Fáil was a debate Irish people had a year ago. The opinion polls show that the Irish electorate has long since made up its mind.

In the long term, the Fianna Fáil leadership contest is not going to change the outcome of a general election that will prove disastrous for the party.

Fifteen MPs have already announced their retirement, including the former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and three cabinet ministers. This figure is expected to increase.

It is extraordinary that Sinn Féin may receive more seats in parliament that Cowen’s party, which has been in government for 20 of the last 23 years, after the anticipated March election.

A Red C opinion poll this weekend may show that Fianna Fáil is now the fourth largest party after Fine Gael and Labour. Rumours of a new political party, established by well-known public commentators and economists, may further dent Fianna Fail’s pecking order in the Dáil after the election.

This is not only historic, but grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented, a phrase invented by the former Fianna Fáil leader, Charles J Haughey. I wonder what he would make of it all.

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