Fianna Fail: Crisis round to Cowen; next round to Martin…

I’m a big fan of restating the bleedin obvious. It’s a much underestimated tool in the journalist’s skillset. So here’s Harry Magee with the first sentient post leadership crisis analysis after Brian Cowen won his intra party competition tonight:

Obvious Conclusion One: The middle ground had not shifted.

Obvious Conclusion Two: Nobody other than Brian Cowen has built up a support base in the party. From the evidence of the past week, the pretenders can each rely on only a handful (and a smallish one at that) of supporters.

Obvious Concluskon Three: Brian Cowen is a winner but will be a loser in the long term.

Obvious Conclusion Four: Micheal Martin is a loser but may be the big winner ultimately. Reason: He finally faced down the Taoiseach and also began dismantling the image of him as a waverer and ditherer. He also came out really really well compared to the subjects of the next two conclusions. He is now the clear favourite to succeed Cowen. His reputation has been enhanced by the events of this week.

Obvious Conclusion Five: Brian Lenihan has been damaged (and some say badly damaged) by the claims (true or untrue) from John McGuinness that he was encouraging dissent against Cowen last year. Even the uttering of such a claim will taint him  – and he will struggle to try to overcome it.

Obvious Conclusion Five: Mary Hanafin has also come out of it badly. Her public utterances last week suggested she wanted Cowen gone but she failed to follow through. She ducked the question on the Frontline, made herself generally unavailable to the media, and then delivered a short speech at the meeting tonight in which she refused to disclose here voting intentions.

I agree with Harry that this has been a sideshow. In politics there often is a lot of smoke without fire. The trouble is that all of this controversy amplifies the suspicions of a populis under strain and looking for someone (er, the Government) to blame for it all. To wit, Fianna Fail knew more than they are publicly admitting about the nature of the banking crisis.

It fits a certain narrative (and the donation patterns to the party’s TDs from developers) over the last ten years. Up until 2007, Fianna Fail had the benefit of the doubt. Now that doubt is rapidly disappearing, and so is the popular support for Ireland’s ‘natural party of government’.

In my view, all bets are off. But Harry reckons it could have unexpected outcomes yet:

…yes, it was a sideshow. And yes it was the most despised party in the State. But that party has badly needed an emergency of this kind to force it to confront its own reality, to allow it focus,  and galvanise support.

It is probably a crisis the party needed to have months, or even two years ago. As I argued this morning, time is running out.

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  • John Ó Néill

    “…this has been a sideshow.”

    Ok, the personal tragedy he had to deal with last year may well have been a major factor. But, the apparent lack of passion in Martin’s challenge coupled with his adjournment to Cork to defend his seat (which was supposedly at risk), and doubtless prepare to take up the post-election leadership of FF looks fairly contrived.

    With the stated opposition of the Greens and independents to electing a new Taoiseach, ultimately it was Cowen or an election. A leadership contest followed by electoral meltdown was never going to be a vote winner.

    But, as a sideshow, it has knocked various stories off the front page: the messy tangle of Anglo and FF, Bank of Ireland staff bonuses under investigation etc, never mind AIB’s effective nationalisation which was successfully buried before Xmas. So, job done, then?

  • Mick Fealty

    I would say that’s one conspiracy theory too far John. Why would you take the opportunity to publicly self emolate just to avoid the kind of bullets FF has been adeptly dodging for years now.

    Drawing a poison is the best spin I could put on it.

    But for me Noel Whelan nailed it last Saturday:

    “Fianna Fáil needs most of all to have a good election campaign but currently lags well behind the other parties in its preparations. There are no apparent signs of campaign infrastructure. The party is only now finalising selection conventions. All of the other parties are well into the a second phase of their candidate selection and their national executives are busy adding to and tweaking their line-ups in each constituency.

    Even more peculiar, no Fianna Fáil Ardfheis has yet been scheduled. Traditionally the party, which had no ardfheis last year, would have scheduled one for the months before an election so as to avail of the live TV coverage and media exposure in the pre-election period.

    When they regrouped in Leinster House on Wednesday to debrief after the Christmas break, the backbenchers had only depressing stories to tell each other and their focus inevitably turned to the question of leadership.”

    The test of good political analysis at time like this is that it doesn’t fade like greasy chip paper after a day or two. Many of Whelan’s fellow commentators were pretty loose in their predictions of Cowen’s downfall over last weekend. This passes the test, IMHO.

    Demoralised, unfocused and leaderless is how I’d best describe Fianna Fail’s current status…

  • joeCanuck

    Demoralised, unfocused and leaderless is how I’d best describe Fianna Fail’s current status…

    That reminds me of the conservative party in Canada in the early 90s which MV noted a day or so ago. They went from 170 seats to 2.

  • pippakin

    Some are saying FF will drag out the date of the GE until April or even later. I don’t think that would be in their interest. The best thing they can do is get the election over and move on.

    FF handled the situation well, If there is any kind of bounce it will be now and quite probably short lived. However there is an interesting item being mentioned. Lenihan says he is fighting to get a better interest rate from the banks. I don’t think there is smoke without fire. If it did happen that would be another bounce. Again small but it all adds up. I don’t think FF are down and out,

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – I’d noted back in mid-December that FF weren’t rushing their selection conventions, which suggested we aren’t yet hitting the full-on pre-amble to an election. It has also allowed them to size up the opposition. As Whelan points out, the lack of an Ard-fheis is equally intriguing in that regard. Supposedly there is at least one big retirement yet to be announced as well after the staggered reports of individual TDs who will not stand in the next election. The stated aim of the coalition is to deliver the finance bill plus the Green’s party pieces, which will take considerably more than the next four weeks. The popular and probably educated guess is that the earliest an election will take place is late March, but unless the High Court intervenes over by-elections or the Green’s pull the plug, the coalition don’t have to call an election at all this year.
    I’m not suggesting that the whole leadersip challenge was completely set-up to distract news coverage, although Lenihan was reported to be furiously canvassing against Cowen until yesterday, Hanafin suddenly went mute and Martin was, well, remarkably dispassionate about becoming leader. Clearly something was brokered and the process was simply played out as a set-piece. The episode is now being heavily spun as evidence of Cowens backbone, leadership qualities etc.
    I wouldn’t dispute that they are demoralised and unfocused. They appear to be hanging on frantically hoping something, (anything) will happen to transform their fortunes. We could (in theory) have a very long wait.


    in the UK, people predicted the demise of Brown’s Labour but as we know, they wrong. People are very capricious when giving opinions for pollsters but when faced with the reality of an election, the tried and trusted wins the day. I’m not saying FF will win the election but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost only 5-10 seats. Meltdowns are very rare in the democratic world. Even the Tory ‘meltdown’ in 1997 was in reality a win of 199 seats out of 650. Hardly the stuff of vanishing. Naw, we love dramatic talk and it pricks our ears up but FF will do well. Never under estimate the power of tribalism


    The results of the UK General Elections of 1997 and 2010 were consistent with the opinion polls in the months leading up to those elections.

    The swings in opinion poll change in the UK have been nothing like as great in comparison to those in ROI.

  • Dewi

    PR is a godsend for FF – along with the remnants of personal popularity enjoyed by some TDs so (famous last words) total doom is unlikely….


    Seymour – maybe but its still hard to imagine a Dail comprising 30 FG/ 30 Labour/ 20 SF/ 20 socialists and assorted nutcases and 12 FF though. And if we do, the next Dail will be known as the Dog’s Breakfast Dail. Nothing good will come off it.

    As for FG, what rabbit will they pull from the hat over the coming years? Apart from building a time machine, what can they do but live with the current state and future legacy of the IMF bail out and fiscal stipulations on Eire.

    The ironic thing is, the forthcoming election might both be the most politically interesting but simultaniously, in terms of changes of domestic policy etc, the least important. The hands of domestic policy are now bound. The election will be merely changing which pair of wrists are in the bracelets.

  • Greenflag

    @Dewi ,

    ‘Total doom is unlikely ‘

    True but anything less than 25 seats would /could be the signal for a party break up. For most of the past couple of decades as FG continually weakened one of the common themes was when FG would eventually implode and when it’s disparate wings would find political refuges in FF and or the PD’s or even Labour . Ironic if what was forecast for FF actually happens to FF,

    Michael Martin may yet lead the party post the electoral defeat . Mary O’Rourke has let it slip that it was a two to one vote for Cowan thus a 46 – 25 vote .

    The Greens are demanding an ‘Election Date ‘ from Mr Cowan presumably in the spirit of turkey’s calling for Christmas Day to be brought forward 😉

    One way or another this election will be remembered more so than any in our political history bar perhaps the 1918 and 1932 elections.

    @ orwellspin,

    ‘The hands of domestic policy are now bound. The election will be merely changing which pair of wrists are in the bracelets.’

    That may as well be -but there are those who take a less bleak view and who would prefer to be in power when the ‘good times’ roll again . And then there are those ‘black swan ‘ events out there which may yet offer rescue or final demise those for whom hopes have been dashed or raised ?

    Fortuna will no doubt play whichever card she will .

  • Whoever is elected next leader of FF may be the first person to lead that party not to be Taoiseach. I was going to say be ‘elected taoieaach’ but Brian Cowen has already got that mention in dispatches.

    I have a bit of time for Micheál Ó Mairtín,not least because he’s a fellow Corkman but also because he’s a decent fellow, perhaps too decent for politics, as the last few days have illustrated. At the same time, he was in the cabinet all that time when his colleagues, Bertie, Brian and Charlie, blew up the balloon now deflated.

    But I do think that FF is becoming irrelevant – and my only fear that the chamaleons of SF, under the guise of FF Lite, will take over where they left off. That’s the kind of party that SF is, a party which picks up the clothes of whatever party it thinks will get it into power. There’s clearly an FF vote out there to be poached – but to whom will it go? Maybe not as much to FG and Labour – they will get the bulk of the floating vote – but the more committed, less than hardline FFer, to whom will that vote go? Such is the blind rage at FF at the moment, the possibility is that some will go to SF or, as I call them now, FF lite. Remember this is the same party that wanted to share power with FF after the last election but whose advances were rebuffed that time. Lucky SF.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The fact that Micheál Martin wont ever be Taoiseach is probably to his advantage. I like him. And whether I like Fianna Fáil or not (I dont) now is the time for men of good will to come to the aid of the Party.
    No doubt those who know the southern scene better than I do can reasonably say he is just as bad as any FF stroke politician but it is certainly an advantage he does not come across that way.
    With a long spell in opposition looming ahead, he can make decisions in the Partys interest without the distraction of wider political interest.
    Whether FG/Labour can actually co-exist for a full term is doubtful (look at the Con-Lib Dems).
    I dont want to speculate on any number of seats FF will get. I cant see them getting 40 but I think its more likely than not that they will have a TD in most constituencies….around 30 plus….but SF will not have strength in dept and will lose momentum as counts go down the transfers.
    And I suspect FF backbenchers will save their skins by going (nominally) Independent as their personal brand might be better than the Party label.

    We are at the end of January with the short month of February to come plus the lead up to St Patricks Day and Easter (both emotional times with the sell out of sovreignty an issue).
    Which means I see late April/early May as a distinct possibility. And that means we will have elections running in both North and South.
    This means that any publicity SF gets in one news outlet (UTV/BBC) is likely to impact in the South……and vice versa. It neatly circumvents issues of balance. Either way, many northerners will feel its ok to want SF to do well in South (Pearse Doherty is no Pat Sheehan) and vote against SF in North (Pat Sheehan is no Pearse Doherty).
    A late Southern election is therefore good news for SF….and an early Southern election is good news for SDLP.
    From a

  • Munsterview

    John O :” I wouldn’t dispute that they are demoralized and unfocused. They appear to be hanging on frantically hoping something, (anything) will happen to transform their fortunes. We could (in theory) have a very long wait. ”

    In politics what appears to be ‘the bleeding obvious’ is not always the result of planning and strategy, in fact it seldom is.

    Dame Endas front bench shower had much more time to organize a heave yet step by step they were systematically out maneuvered, not by any great Macavlian operations, but because at every stage like dissolving the front shadow front bench, or what was left of it, Enda had to power to act, while his opponents were acting without power.

    Power is all : that is the first lesson politicians learn, if they do not take and exercise power and authority they do not establish a presence.

    I would suggest that much of what happened in the FF leadership stakes just happened no great planning. Political Corrs and political insiders know the sequence of events; both Lenihan and Martin camps were working for their own people and stirring things up against Cowen. Cowen more or less decided to go.

    There are three main camps as I have posted, Martins, Lenihans and Cowen loyalists. Many of the latter are deadwood who are either resigning or who do not have a realistic chance of re-election. When Cowen began to seriously consider going, the genuine loyalists and those who want to preserve the status quo for fear of worse roused and rallied.

    Micheal Martin in moving is too long in the political tooth not to have known the numbers: in fact Sunday afternoon a pro Martin FF insider predicted to me either a 3 : 2 or a 2 : 1 in Cowens favor. Micheal had the good of the party as well as his own prospects in mind, he was content to stake out his claim and do what he did in careful, incremental moves.

    The Cowen rump is the problem they have a block of votes, that will make the difference and make up the numbers for whoever is elected. If Martin led a take ‘no prisoner charge’ and forced a debate and leadership, he would have been seen to further and possibly fatally fracture FF and he would also have alienated the Cowen loyalist camp.

    Micheal did what he has done every step of his career to date, moved cautiously and carefully and consolidated his position to be in a better place than he was without unduly damaging his future prospects. His family circumstance have been mentioned as a factor in his lack of assertiveness : I respect his call for privacy in this sphere. All I will say there is that the family have had to live and come to terms with their children’s medical situation and tragedy as well as all that entailed many years ago.

    There is panic in Fianna Fail ranks and the reality of widespread seat loss has sunk in, political realists also know as it says in the Bob Geldof song ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, that sometimes ‘there are no answers for there are no answers’.

    This is one of these situations, most FF seats in three seaters are at risk, most four seaters can only realistically run one candidate with a prospect of winning and most five seaters where two FF will run two, there will be the usual fear and loathing as it is still only a realistic prospect of one FF seat in most.

    Prior to the election Martin is now the only realistic Leader-in-waiting, he can canvass and build up support while the other would be leaders have to be loyal to the Government. More important he will be regarded as the leader in waiting by the press, media, FF grassroots and public and will be treated as such. He also has the opportunity to concentrate on keeping his seat, this was by no means a fore gone certainty, and he can put as much clear water between himself and the Fianna Fail financial debacle as possible in the lead up to the election.

    In the early part of his career he was sometimes referred to as ‘Miss Out Martin’ as he appeared time and again to have lost out in the divvy up of the goodies, yet some time later when the dust settled, he was seen to be in a better place after all.

    This is one of these times……as time will tell!