The three main players in the past week’s leadership drama displayed clinical ruthlessness. Micheál Martin told the Taoiseach 10 days ago that the game was up. He was toast and had to go. This revolt by the officer corps was much more grave than the ongoing bellyaching from former junior ministers over recent months.
Martin made a cold calculated move. He surmised that Cowen could be vulnerable to a pre-election assault. Worst-case scenario, if abortive, he would be well placed post-election. Potentially, this was a win-win situation. Even if he lost the battle, he could win the war, by being the guy who had the backbone to decapitate Cowen. His supporters would be a ready made constituency of parliamentarians to secure the leadership in the aftermath of FF’s decimation.
Cowen was floored by the timing and ferocity of the move. In a media blitz, he warned his internal detractors he had no intention of stepping down voluntarily and would resolutely fight to retain the leadership. This resulted in any challenge evaporating. He adamantly refused a “back me or sack me” motion of confidence in himself. Cowen’s shocked reaction to the attempted putsch was to initially concede. The media rumour mill had it that Cowen confided to senior colleagues and Greens that he may resign. News of Mary Cowen’s arrival in government buildings stiffened of his resolve. Before long, he muddied the waters by entering into a “consultation phase”.
Charles Haughey and John Bruton endured many regular heaves. A tried and trusted tactic was to have one to one meetings with TDs. This crucial phase buys time to let the frenzy die down. Ostensibly, it’s a listening exercise, in reality, it’s canvassing for support. In a confessor role, the embattled leader can connect. This worked a treat for Cowen. From being on the back foot, he was able to launch an offensive confidence motion, with only 48 hours for his opponents to organise.
Both titans had played their cards. The most devious and cunning act then ensued. Enter stage left the kingmaker Brian Lenihan. It is an open secret in government buildings that the two Brians have been at loggerheads for many months. Mutual irritation and distrust has festered between them. Garglegate and Golfgate were grist to the mill of frustration. What was Lenihan to do? Martin had stolen a march on him, garnering the anti-Cowen faction. Lenihan let it be known, since December, that he was up for the fight and ready to take Cowen out. He built a base of Dublin TDs and family connections to support him to be the next FF leader.
It wasn’t long before the national interest prevailed. Stability in government and unity of purpose on the eve of a general election were the public reasons for backing Cowen. The real power play was much more ingenious. Shoring up pivotal support for Cowen meant Martin was shafted. His solo run ended in a cul de sac. He was dismissed as a Cork candidate. After the election massacre, residual Cowen loyalists would support the new Brian and ensure Martin was thwarted. This trump card ensured Cowen’s survival and Lenihan’s enhanced prospects to be the chosen one.
These personal agendas aside, what is in the best electoral interests of Fianna Fáil? The case against Cowen is formidable. Fair-minded critics have to acknowledge Cowen’s attributes, as well as failings. Unlike former FF leaders there is no case of corruption against him. He has not used public office for personal gain. The worst he can be accused of is cronyism. His overall integrity remains intact. Throughout his career, he had displayed intellect and competence. He understands briefs and can explain them.
His flaws are pronounced in the most tempestuous dark and difficult circumstances of our unprecedented economic depression. Inspirational political leadership has at its core successful communications. Cowen’s insistence of constantly putting substance before style has resulted in deeply negative perceptions of him.
He gruffly treats the media as an irritant, rather than a vehicle for his message. He failed to make any senior appointment to the Fianna Fáil press office for months. His disdain for media advisors is evident. He is just plain wrong about this and has to change. Perception can be as important as reality.
Cowen’s other critical failing has related to inept preparation. He deluded himself that the general election would not be until June2012. Despite a diminishing majority, wavering independents and wobbly Greens, he could not foresee a premature break-up of his government. This unshakable complacency almost proved to be his Waterloo. All other parties appointed their director of elections last year. To win elections, you need good candidates and money. Fianna Fáil were the last to hold selection conventions.
This resulted in a deluge of retirements that utterly demoralised party supporters. Senior cabinet members opted out. Cowen should not have reappointed any of these unless they were prepared to stand in the campaign. With debts of €3m, FF faces a funding crisis. The cancellation of the Cairde Fáil dinner was unprecedented.
Despairing backbenchers noted shambolic election planning with horror. This dismay, at their own survival prospects, resulted in Cowen’s judgment coming under the microscope. Anyone else could do better. TIn terms of national economic and party management, he had not obtained the best advice or advisors. His failure was in stark contrast to Bertie Ahern’s ability to look around corners and plan ahead. Ahern had an uncanny knack of meeting trouble half way and averting it. Cowen is perceived as being akin to a pin ball ricochet, merely reacting to external events — resulting in hopeless electoral prospects.
A Cowen revival can only be sustained by reinvention. Empathy, sensitivity and compassion must complement bellicose pugnacity. He needs to hear and implement professional PR advice. He must stay on message and be media available. The overwhelming desire is for a soonest general election date. Further delays in the campaign will reinforce the image of clinging desperately to power. Cowen was at his best when his own job was on the line. Many unemployed wish that he had shown the same energy and commitment to save theirs.
Master stroke of the week was the Machiavellian qualities displayed by Brian Lenihan. That ruthless operator coined the dictum, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Lenihan’s enemy’s enemy was Brian Cowen. Hence, he saved his skin. In the FG leadership struggle, Michael Noonan fulfilled the same role for Enda Kenny in resisting Richard Bruton’s challenge. Many political analysts concluded that Fianna Fáil is dying. This week’s leadership drama indicated that while the vultures may be eyeing up the corpse, internally many foresee life after death for FF. Spare a thought for John Gormley. His depiction of the asylum has become a home for the bewildered.