THE unofficial and undeclared contest to become the next leader of Fianna Fáil has taken more than a few twists and turns in recent weeks. There is no vacancy – as yet.
But it may be only a matter of time and quietly and subtly the contenders to replace Brian Cowen as leader have been positioning themselves. Brian Lenihan, Micheál Martin and Dermot Ahern are the clear contenders, although all would deny it.
There are some Fianna Fáil diehards who believe the Government can hang on until 2012 – which means Cowen would remain in situ until then at least – and that number has grown since Wednesday’s budget which has been relatively well received considering that it involved a massive €4 billion in cuts.
There are even a few who believe Fianna Fáil can return to government after the next election, albeit with a much smaller number of TDs – again that number has grown in recent days. Should such a miracle occur, then Cowen probably would survive.
However, the fear of early ejection from power – and the loss of a large number of seats – remains for most Fianna Fáil TDs. The majority still concede that FF may be in opposition after the next election and in those circumstances there is no chance Cowen would be allowed to stay on.
Indeed it is doubtful whether he would even want to do so. Cowen often appears worn out by his experience as Taoiseach.
It is doubtful too that a majority in FF would want to keep him in charge. While most feel he was dealt something of a bum hand by the timing of Bertie Ahern’s departure, others realise that he was finance minister during a key period of Ahern’s leadership and that he bears much of the responsibility for failing to prepare for the downturn, let alone deal with it subsequently.
The failures of regulation at the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator, for example, that inflated the bubble to bursting point, may have been influenced by Ahern, as was the unsustainable splurge in public spending, but Cowen should have been strong enough to do what was necessary rather than what his boss wanted.
Cowen was popular with the backbenchers before ascending to the leadership, but he has lost a lot of this capital because of a rather authoritarian approach towards the parliamentary party. As pertinently, there is a realisation that he does not appeal beyond the FF "family" towards the wider electorate in the way that Bertie Ahern did. That means transfers at constituency level will be harder to come by at a time when first preferences are set to slump, putting even more seats at risk. Cowen’s failure to communicate with the public has become a major liability. His innate decency and honesty is just not enough. But his supporters claim he is strong behind the scenes.
It is notable that his Government has faced down the trade unions (and in particular the public sector element) twice this year, once in February when it imposed the public sector pension levy and again this Wednesday with the pay cuts.
However, Cowen does not always get the credit for this. Even if the decisions to leave such impositions until the last minute were tactical to leave the unions without wriggle room, it still created the impression that they were forced on him. This is emphasised by the feeling that Lenihan had his way and had to coerce Cowen to follow him.
Lenihan therefore is held by many political commentators to hold the lead in the race to become the next FF leader. He has managed to pull off the not inconsiderable trick of becoming popular with the better-off in society while simultaneously taxing them far more heavily than many seem to realise.
Wednesday’s budget was a watershed moment for Lenihan. His intellectual rigour has been acknowledged and few doubt his sincerity. The revelation of his late-night garlic eating has been regarded as little more than a charming but harmless eccentricity and his desire to seek outside advice has strengthened rather than weakened him. On Wednesday he boldly declared that "the worst is over" and encouraged confidence. The contrast with the reaction to similar attempts by Cowen to talk up public morale is stark.
Another of the advantages that Lenihan has over his rivals has been delivered to him inadvertently by Bertie Ahern who delayed his promotion because of apparent personal dislike and jealously of his intellect. This means he can escape blame for creating the economic mess and be judged almost exclusively on the basis of how he deals with it.
His main concerns now must be how the Government stands up to any attempted disruption of public services and the strong likelihood that NAMA will not work and that the banks will have to be nationalised.
However, many in FF will wonder if a man who has cut public sector wages so savagely could ever appeal to that constituency as a leader in an election.
Micheál Martin has enjoyed an excellent few months in rehabilitating an image that was badly damaged by his tenure as health minister. He is out of there so long now that the failures in health will be associated forever with Mary Harney whereas he is still remembered positively for the introduction of the popular ban on smoking in the workplace. He was lucky to have spent his time at Enterprise, Trade and Employment during the boom and to have escaped just before the sudden surge in unemployment. At the Department of Foreign Affairs he was the most prominent figure in the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign and showed a willingness to be argumentative and even aggressive when it was needed in addition to his usual affable, consensual approach.
WHEREAS Cowen shocked many people by his unnecessarily diplomatic (and possibly even craven) approach to dealing with the Papal Nuncio and the Vatican over the former office’s failure even to respond to legitimate questions from the Murphy Commission, Martin publicly demanded answers and apologies. Once he received the required response he returned to diplomacy.
But Martin will find Dermot Ahern eager also to contest the leadership. Ahern made no secret of the fact that he was not happy that his namesake anointed Cowen or of his own ambition to be the party leader. From a personal political point of view Ahern may not be sure just how to view the possibility of a garda strike ballot.
The Department of Justice to date has provided Ahern with opportunities to show his preferred hardline approach to matters. While many may not find it easy to warm to him, they may respect his straightforwardness. He doesn’t do belligerent either, at least not in the Cowen fashion.
Such speculation may be premature in that Cowen’s position is a little firmer now after the budget, albeit with the caveat that public sector strikes could change all of that. However, as an interesting sideshow watching the personal political performances of Lenihan, Martin and Ahern promises to be entertaining in the months to come.
The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm. His book Who Really Runs Ireland? has been in the top five non-fiction bestsellers since its release 10 weeks ago.