Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Endorsing Cowen would be lunacy for Fianna Fail

By keeping his cabinet position as Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin delivers an unspoken but plain message that he anticipates defeat. A true leader would have gone into the wilderness first and then challenged the man he sought to replace. Martin's behaviour is at best eccentric, at worst defeatist.

To me, as to many others, this is a relief. Of the three publicly identified contenders, Martin is by far the worst. He lacks Mary Hanafin's sharpness and clear focus, her reasonably broad-minded grasp of political issues and her preparedness to debate them. Martin also lacks Brian Lenihan's undoubted and ameliorative appeal. Lenihan may talk nonsense but by God he makes it sound good!

When Martin spoke at his press conference of the smoking ban in public places as a main achievement hearts must have sunk. Where was the real man? Was he standing up at all? Astonishingly, he had no voice on reform, on remedying our collapsed sovereignty, on greater respect for the Constitution and on a different approach on our debt. Despite his ministerial responsibilities, he has nothing to offer on how to deal with Europe. Will he bow the knee in the craven way Fianna Fail has done for more than three years?

By calling a vote of confidence Brian Cowen signals expectation of victory at today's meeting. If anything could be worse than Martin's gauche and absurdly marginalised membership of the Cabinet, while stating no confidence in his leader, then it is the spectre of Cowen continuing to haunt us until we get our unspecified chance of throwing him and his party out.

Cowen still has major questions to answer about his actions over Anglo Irish Bank. These include his dealings with Michael Somers. They also include how much he passed on, as Taoiseach, when he appointed Lenihan to Finance. Did he tell him all, or tell him what he has told us? If he did, then why has Lenihan not made all this clear?

Faced with putting Cowen back in charge, Fianna Fail members should clarify these questions.

They are only a beginning. We have here a leader of government, standing for internal party approval, a man who has damaged improperly the Irish Constitution by the actions he took after the first Lisbon Treaty vote by seeking to reverse the will of the people.

This undermined Irish sovereignty. In the end he destroyed it as completely as any single figure could possibly have done in our lifetimes. That destruction is centrally concerned with his muddled and meddlesome handling of the Irish banking system when he was Finance Minister, and his more serious failure to guide his successor, who knew less about economics and made many mistakes.

Whatever people may feel about the greed of developers, Cowen has managed to create a legal system for their vilification and destruction and to bring to a shuddering halt virtually all development except the tedious road works of local authorities who were able to hold us all up, but were unable to grit or clear streets during the snows.

He has destroyed a massive building employment agency. He allowed it to run out of control. The Government was responsible. They allowed the banks to run out of control. We are invited to hate developers and their wives but to pay bankers excessive bonuses.

Members of Fianna Fail should today consider the political career of Cowen. This began with seven years on the backbenches where his blunt lack of judgment and finesse did not endear him to Charles Haughey. Nor did his opposition to what Haughey saw as the partnership between himself and the Progressive Democrats in 1989 following the general election. Understandably, he was not favoured for office and this drove him to support Albert Reynolds in his first and unsuccessful heave against Haughey.

Cowen accepted membership of the 'Country and Western' wing of the party, a rather raucous gang that was intolerant of partnership or consensus politics. This unsubtle characteristic has stuck with him ever since. There also stuck with him a taste for rousing barroom songs together with the heavy imbibing of alcohol.

He remained opposed to coalition partnership, particularly with the Progressive Democrats. He could not stand them. Reynolds followed the same line, making his career short and far from sweet. At a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis in 1992 Cowen's warm-up speech asked the rhetorical question: 'What about the PDs?' He added the smart answer, 'When in doubt, leave them out'.

The characteristic is important since, during the economic crisis that still grips us, Europe has counselled a political consensus in Ireland for which Cowen has shown no aptitude and no sympathy. At a time when Fianna Fail is demonstrating an ability to get almost everything wrong, the idea of working with the other political parties is, and will continue to be, totally absent.

Cowen is irredentist in his belief that everything should be done by and for Fianna Fail. And this includes leaving the country out of things if Fianna Fail loses by it. This simple belief is at the heart of today's decision, since Cowen's secret ballot will be operating directly against the will of a vast majority of Irish voters who want to separate him from power as soon as they possibly can.

Cowen occupied a servile position when Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach. He was overshadowed by the party leader. Cowen's electoral technique, when called into play, was blunt, angry and aggressive. This showed through, but not until his years at the top, beginning in May 2008, when the narrow stubbornness began to be a dominant part of his political character, making him exclusive even when crisis was toppling the Irish State's independence.

Good advice -- and there was plenty of it from opposition parties and media -- was the equivalent of mortar-bombing. It drove Cowen to put the head down in a bunker until he could emerge and reiterate everything he was saying before the violent interruption.

Fianna Fail is expected to endorse Cowen's leadership today. It will be lunacy. We must remember it took the Fianna Fail Party only 24 hours to elect him leader in the first place No one opposed. Recovery was predicted. He would win a fourth Fianna Fail term in power. It did not, and will not happen. Cowen became more of an embarrassment than his predecessor and has remained so. I pride myself on having suggested this possibility from the outset, confirming it strongly after Cowen lost the first Lisbon Treaty referendum, failing to see that this should have been left as the people's judgment.

Instead, he ran a second referendum in 2009, seen by many as an abuse of the Constitution and a surrender of sovereignty. As if that wasn't enough, he went into economic activities that really did undermine sovereignty, costing Cowen and Fianna Fail public support and trust as they saw the encroachment of European powers over our economic independence.

The party went on sinking in the opinion polls to unprecedented levels. Cowen was clearly floundering. There are no reasons for this to change. Even Fianna Fail must know that.