Paul Hosford: In an extraordinary year, Barry Cowen's sacking marks an extraordinary day

17 days in, the party of "senior hurling" has yet to puck a ball.
Paul Hosford: In an extraordinary year, Barry Cowen's sacking marks an extraordinary day
Barry Cowen. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

If a week is a long time in politics, 17 days in such an analogy is a lifetime.

Not, however, for Barry Cowen who has seen his honeymoon period at Cabinet cut shorter than most actual honeymoons, with it causing huge, possibly irreparable, damage to the coalition government.

A 2016 drink-driving ban had become a millstone around the neck of a politically divergent government that will struggle to keep itself together even in the best of times.

The political logic was simple, according to some: Taoiseach Micheál Martin could not ask his coalition partners to back a man who would not answer questions on his situation publicly.

When Tánaiste Leo Varadkar today added his voice to those of the Green Party leader and deputy leader in seeking further "clarity" on the circumstances around Mr Cowen's drink-driving ban, it sent a signal that both Fine Gael and the Greens were uncomfortable with the situation at best.

How could they when Mr Martin told the Dáil earlier on Tuesday that he had seen Mr Cowen's official Garda record of the incident? He said that the document is “not quite as portrayed” in a Sunday newspaper, but returned to the Dáil chamber barely six hours later to say that "additional issues" had been raised from the document and Mr Cowen was to be relieved of his position.

In an extraordinary year, it was an extraordinary day.

Sources say that Mr Cowen was asked to step aside, but declined, forcing Mr Martin to fire him.

File Photo: Barry Cowen with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: RollingNews.ie
File Photo: Barry Cowen with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Picture: RollingNews.ie

His hold on the role of Taoiseach is time-limited and he was already forced to attempt to thread a needle when naming his cabinet and junior ministers, neither of which passed without internal controversy.

But those disputes were internal. They were political theatre writ on a national stage that needed any news that wasn't about a virus.

This is different. A now-former member of cabinet accused a member or members of An Garda Síochána of a criminal act, has been fired and in turn accused the Taoiseach of prejudicing his right to fair process.

If you didn't believe the drink-driving ban was worthy of the column inches devoted to it, the story's denouement certainly will be.

The row has exposed the fault lines not just in Fianna Fáil, which is now fractured into a number of camps, but within this new government, whose start to life has been inauspicious at best, like Bambi on ice at worst.

In most circumstances similar to this, the cabinet would rally around or close ranks on their colleague. This is a coalition of three parties where large swathes of the membership, from grassroots to the Cabinet, hold no major grá for one another. The era or circling the wagons is over, it would seem.

For the man whose job it is to hold the whole thing together, Mr Martin's first three weeks as leader of the country have some asking how long this coalition can realistically last. 

There is no immediate sign that the government will come down, but this was a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach dismissing a Fianna Fáil minister.

What would have happened had Mr Varadkar still been in his role? How would the Fianna Fáil grassroots have reacted to a Fine Gaeler sacking one of theirs?

Make no mistake, Ireland and this government face much bigger tests than Barry Cowen's driving record.

The next year to 18 months will throw up major challenges that will require a unified, cohesive government.

But 17 days in, the party of "senior hurling" has yet to puck a ball.

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