Isn’t it ironic? Enda throws lifeline to Cowen

ON a day rich with political ironies, this must have been one of the strangest for Enda Kenny: In the same 24 hours his leadership of Fine Gael began to sink in rough waters, he was throwing a lifeline to Brian Cowen.

The Dáil motion of confidence in the Taoiseach gave a fresh mandate to Mr Cowen. It forced disgruntled Fianna Fáil backbenchers to publicly stand behind their leader and drew a line under an abysmal week for the party which saw historically low poll results and criticism of its policies from two major banking reports.

In contrast, when Enda Kenny stood up to deliver a speech that should have seriously undermined Mr Cowen’s authority in the eyes of the public, the tone of resignation in his voice made it clear the only leadership coming to an end was his own.

“Dáil Eireann has no confidence in the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen,” he began, to which the obvious reply from the Fianna Fáil side came as scripted: “Fine Gael has no confidence in Deputy Enda Kenny!”

Putting on the bravest face, the sinking opposition leader told Mr Cowen: “If you had any integrity you would have already resigned,” to which laughter from Fianna Fáil inevitably followed.

From that point on, Fianna Fáil deputies bit their lips and resisted the tempting urge to shout all the obvious jibes. They saw what Fine Gael failed to foresee when they called the no-confidence motion: That it’s best to leave the undermining of a leader to his own party; it might have a uniting effect if it’s left to rivals.

While at civil war themselves, Fine Gael were forcing Fianna Fáil into displaying a united front with yesterday’s motion.

While the focus should have been on the Taoiseach, all eyes were on Mr Kenny to see if he could deliver a speech worthy of keeping him on as Fine Gael leader; to see what reaction he could get from his party members and to see who would sit where on the benches beside him after nine frontbenchers had declared no confidence in him.

Mr Kenny delivered some harsh words of criticism of Mr Cowen accusing him of “hijacking the Republic” and handing it over to a toxic circle of bankers, developers and speculators.

At any other time, these remarks would have touched a patriotic nerve in Mr Cowen and possibly sparked a reaction similar to that when the Labour Party accused him of economic treason.

But the words were delivered by a wounded man. While Mr Kenny made a brave attempt not to allow the heave against him get in the way of his speech against Mr Cowen, it was remarked that he delivered his words like a funeral homily.

As Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín O Caoláin put it: “With the Fianna Fáil Government on the ropes, Fine Gael has managed to deliver a knock out punch – to themselves.”

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said the motion of confidence was just a “parliamentary exercise” reflecting the view of many in his party that it was a bad move by FG, heave or no heave.

Labour believed the motion would draw a line under the banking reports and make it harder for the opposition to use them against the Government at every possible opportunity.

Mr Gilmore tried to portray himself as a superior alternative Taoiseach to whomever leads Fine Gael by saying it was “time to set aside the policies of division” and make way for “the core underlying idea that has driven Labour for a century – solidarity. Le Chéile.”

While they must have dreaded the occasion, the confidence debate proved a useful tool for the Kenny camp in the party’s internal war.

It allowed them to focus on the poor judgment of the alternative leader, Richard Bruton, for staging a coup when all eyes should have been on the Taoiseach.

Fuelling these doubts over Bruton’s judgment will be key to Mr Kenny holding onto his job and this may not have been possible without yesterday’s debate.

And thus one of the strangest political ironies has come full circle: Brian Cowen might have helped Enda Kenny to stave off support for his challenger and allowed him to hop on his lifeboat.

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