Challenge for Fine Gael - FG is not ready for Cowen era

BY NOW Fianna Fáil loyalists will have begun to come to terms with the shock of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s Wednesday announcement.

Their regret will be balanced by considerable optimism. They will be happy that they do not have to answer the do-you-believe-him-or-not question a dozen times each and every day, realising that a direct answer would be disloyal or dishonest and that the survivalist’s fudge cannot be illuminating.

They can take real comfort in the exemplary dignity and pragmatism with which Mr Ahern faced the inevitable. They will, in time, take even more comfort from the legacy Mr Ahern has left their party.

In Fianna Fáil terms this has defined above all else a unity of purpose that, if it is sustained, will give Fianna Fáil a better chance than ever before of being, virtually, the permanent government of this country.

Anyone who remembers the Fianna Fáil deputy, the late Jim Gibbons trying to avoid a Haugheyite mob, intent on real violence inside Leinster House, just because he dared question the authority and integrity of the Boss cannot but be filled with amazed admiration.

Mr Ahern has re-established a culture that recognises that without power Fianna Fáil is pointless and that anything that threatens that reality must be put to one side. The effectiveness of that culture can be seen by the fact that any leadership contest now seems all but irrelevant. Family linen will not be washed in public and if, as it has been decreed, Brian Cowen succeeds Mr Ahern, that code will become even more unviable.

Pity then Fine Gael.

If Mr Ahern departed with dignity Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny’s response was clumsy, incoherent and inarticulate. He struggled to make any valuable contribution to the day’s events and any effort he made to prepare for this inevitable event fell short.

His call for an election was so off the wall as to be laughably amateur. If it represented what he thought possible then it is not difficult to understand why most of the current crop of Fine Gael politicians seem destined to spend most of their careers as little more than hectoring lookers-on.

Mr Kenny struggled to match a relatively affable Mr Ahern in the set pieces in the house, so anyone with even a smidgen of humanity will fear for him if he has to mark Mr Cowen.

Already we have seen Mr Kenny meekly accept a loud reprimand from the Tánaiste — “you are not qualified” — when anyone with the wit and gumption of a decent taxi driver would have fought his corner.

Mr Kenny is undoubtedly a fine and decent man, a good party man and, seemingly, an accomplished organiser but if Fine Gael thinks that it has even the slightest prospect of rattling Mr Cowen by sending the calm, polite and less-than-incisive Mayoman to do battle with him it is as off the mark as was his election call on Wednesday. It is as optimistic as sending a púcán to confront a dreadnought.

Every democracy needs an active opposition and if Fine Gael chooses to remain in opposition at least it should be effective. This week it was give a masterclass in pragmaticism, it is time it learnt the lesson.

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