Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Timing is everything in Fianna Fail coup d'etat

Micheal Martin's failed bid to topple Brian Cowen could be a blessing in disguise, as Fianna Fail is doomed and the Taoiseach knows it too, says Henry McDonald

As David Miliband could tell you, he who hesitates in politics will inevitably get lost. Back in the last autumn of the Labour government, the elder Miliband was being urged to mount a coup d'etat against an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister.

With Gordon Brown's poll rating falling through the floor, plotters within British Labour goaded David Miliband to force a leadership contest in the run-up to the party's last annual conference before the general election.

The would-be usurper bottled it, however, and Brown survived, using his conference speech to put down his potential challenger and end any prospect of Labour replacing the Prime Minister as leader before the general election. The net result of this hesitancy and diffidence being Brown clinging on, Labour losing and David being felled as the next leader by his younger brother Ed.

It is a lesson David Miliband could relay to the current Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

As I write here in Dublin, Fianna Fail's 71 deputies in the Dail have decided in a secret ballot who will lead the party into the general election expected in March.

Current leader, Brian Cowen survived this no confidence vote to remain not only as leader of Fianna Fail but also as Taoiseach.

Cowen, having lived to fight another day, raises serious questions over Micheal Martin's judgement. Did he, unlike David Miliband, in fact jump too soon?

His supporters in the party are arguing that although Martin ended up on the losing side he is still perfectly positioned to lead Fianna Fail after the general election.

Even Paddy Power the bookie is betting on Martin being the red hot favourite to take over after Fianna Fail suffers a mauling at the hands of an Irish electorate angry over the party's mishandling of the country's financial crisis and suspicions that it was far too close to some of the bankers that caused the fiscal chaos.

In addition, the Martin camp contends that he will not be tainted by the smear of defeat. He will not be branded a loser. Martin can in fact say "I told you so" if Fianna Fail get hammered at the polls as a result of sticking with Cowen.

It was, nonetheless, an enormous gamble for the Foreign Minister to take on Cowen at this time. There is palpable anger amongst some of the rank and file that Martin has sown further divisions and made the party look even more incompetent. Rather than unite around its current leader and sustain the blows, they claim, his intervention now as the alternative candidate to Cowen only bolsters the public's perception that Fianna Fail is riven with splits and all at sea strategically.

And what of Cowen himself? Why has he decided to battle on even though he knows he is facing certain annihilation at the ballot box towards the end of March?

One Fianna Fail figure close to the Offaly-born prime minister has told me that Cowen is resigned to his fate but has decided to go down fighting. Cowen agrees with that school of thought within the party which believes a new leadership needs to be inoculated from the defeat that Fianna Fail is expected to suffer and the historic losses in terms of seats.

Partly this is due to the 51-year-old's character, which friends regard as pugnacious and those that have crossed him portray as gruff bordering on the truculent. Hence the nickname BIFFO, standing for Big Ignorant F***** From Offaly. (He once had to apologise for using the F-word plural in the Dail after microphones in the parliament picked his expletive up.)

It is also perhaps out of loyalty to his party, given that he knows it would be better if he sailed them through the storm rather than risk a new captain at the helm going overboard before they have the chance to rebuild.

If Micheal Martin is in danger of suffering the same fate as Dave Miliband (another lost leader) then Brian Cowen is definitely travelling on the same road as Gordon Brown. Both men were once in control of their two nation's finances when the good times were rolling but were later blamed for allowing things to slip and their economies to slide into recession.

The pair came to power on the backs of two far more charismatic and media-savvy prime ministers - Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Each took up the highest office in their lands just as their economies went into tailspins.

Like Brown, Brian Cowen is highly regarded among civil servants and economists as someone who really does have a grasp of the minutiae of how an economy works. But just like Brown his lack of communication skills and his inability to empathise with people are major handicaps.

Indeed, it was his inept handling of the International Monetary Fund and EU bailout of the Republic at the end of last year which forced Martin to challenge the leader.

One of Cowen's admirers in Dublin once compared him to the Duke of Wellington, whose military strategy was to absorb and survive enemy fire before breaking out and seizing the initiative on the battlefield. The comparison in terms of character might be apposite given that Cowen is prepared to hunker down, stand firm and take the blows. But the outcome for the Taoiseach regardless of yesterday's vote is likely to be more akin to Napoleon as Cowen faces his political Waterloo.

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