Thursday, 20 January 2011

Fighting the Polite Fight

The last week has been interesting in Irish politics – something that’s hardly a comfort for those who wish that Irish politics would settle down a bit. Last week the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, was plagued by questions over the fact that he had been golfing during the long summer Dáil recess with Seán FitzPatrick, the head of Anglo-Irish bank a few weeks before the infamous bank guarantee that fixed bank debts to the state debt. Anglo-Irish turned out to be the bank with the worst lending record, and the bank has had tens of billions of Euros pumped into it, making it the symbol of Ireland’s economic woes.

Cowen spent a few days consulting the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on his position as party leader, and a confidence vote was called for Tuesday this week. On Sunday the Foreign Minister, Micheál Martin, offered his resignation and declared that he would vote against Cowen. On Tuesday, after a secret vote (it was Tweeted that the result was 2 to 1 for Cowen), Cowen was declared the winner. Martin’s resignation was finally accepted, but despite his loss, it is Martin who has gained the most from the last week. Two other Fianna Fáil ministers – Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin – with some leadership designs did not come out of the attempted heave well, with Lenihan declaring support for Cowen before other minister and TDs (MPs) publically complained that Lenihan was encouraging others to vote against Cowen. Hanafin refused to declare her support either way, but has now admitted that she voted against Cowen. Factor in her refusal to resign, and she has greatly damaged her profile within the party.

All in all, this attempted heave comes much too late to matter: Fianna Fáil are now at 14% in the polls, which is the same as Sinn Féin, so there can be no question of the party leading any government any time soon. The question now is will Fianna Fáil even be the main opposition party (suggestions by Labour that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might go into coalition are extremely unlikely considering the Civil War divide between them and how toxic they have become). The certain defeat and Fianna Fáil’s electoral toxicity means that there will be a wipeout in any case, and changing a leader won’t help. This might have saved Cowen this week, but after the election, there will have to be a new leader, and Micheál Martin has just made himself the front runner.

Much has been made by the party of the civilised nature of the heave, in comparison to the great turmoil of the party in the Haughy era, and the leadership challenge in the main opposition party, Fine Gael, last year. But in many ways the whole thing has been very much a side-show, with Irish Times journalist Miriam Lord, characterising it as a fight between:

Cowen, the dead duck; Martin the lame duck; Hanafin the gutless duck; and Lenihan, the superior duck who shot himself in the foot.”.

It also hasn’t stemmed the government’s problems. With Martin out of the cabinet a reshuffle was needed, and many ministers who won’t be running in the next election have bowed out – making a current total of 6 ministers that the Taoiseach had to find replacements for. It was always going to be a difficult task: Fianna Fáil backbenchers are more likely to get elected if they distance themselves from the government, and the Green Party did not be participate in the reshuffle. So Cowen has quickly reassigned the ministeral portfolios among the remaining Fianna Fáil ministers.

One good thing has emerged, however – we now have an election date: 11th March. It cannot come soon enough.

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