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The Dramatic Downfall of the Irish Prime Minister

As long as I am running this Government, I will run it as I see fit and as I believe, based on my philosophy.

Brian Cowen, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) thundered in the Irish Parliament in January 2009. Two years later, he is still Taoiseach but just a shadow of his former self. His personal approval rating is 8%. Many find it amazing that there are still 8% of people who approve of the job he is doing.

January 2011 was a very strange month in Ireland. It kicked off with the publication of a secret book – The Fitzpatrick Tapes by Tom Lyons and Brian Carey, proofed and published in complete secrecy. Sean Fitzpatrick had been one of the poster boys for the boom. As chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, he was friend to politician and property developer alike, dishing out the money with an even hand. But he was also a gambler – Anglo was a festering mountain of debt that has been referred to as the worst bank in the world. As the house of cards was toppling, the Irish Government first guaranteed and then nationalised Anglo. This bankrupted the country. Fitzpatrick was declared bankrupt.

The politicians with whom Fitzpatrick had intermingled so easily, sought to distance themselves from this pariah. Cowen, who was Finance Minister at the time sought to minimise the links between himself and the former banker. Maybe Fitzpatrick was annoyed or vengeful when in interviews for The Fitzpatrick Tapes he revealed that he had had more contact with Cowen than Cowen disclosed to the Dáil (Irish parliament). The meeting that sparked political upheaval was a round of golf and dinner at Druids Glen in Wicklow.

There was uproar. What had Cowen known when Anglo was nationalised? What was discussed during the game? How did the Taoiseach come to be playing golf with the devil of Irish banking?

When the Dáil finally returned to work on 12 January. Golfgate was the issue of the day. The opposition had a field day. There were accusations of cozy and improper relationships with bankers, economic treason and even questions on the golf handicap of the Taoiseach. The government benches were silent. There was no heckling or eye contact or aspersions cast on the characters of members of the opposition. Questions were flung at the Taoiseach which he batted back with the ever ready bat of I-did-nothing-wrong with a side order of bluster.

He might have gotten away with it too but as it happens, there was another TD (MP) at present at Druid’s Glen that day. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin of Sinn Féin had been attending a wedding at Druid’s Glen that day. He pinned the Taoiseach with the simple question of who else had been in the company.

Cowen was forced to reveal that in addition to Fitzpatrick, Alan Gray – a member of the Board of the Central Bank and Gary McGann – former Anglo director, had joined them for dinner. Cowen maintained that there was no discussion of the bank or its financial difficulties. He was not taken at his word.

Government backbenchers were furious. The Green Party, junior coalition partners stated that it was not Sherlock Holmes, and would to continue in Government. The Minister for Tourism was trice asked whether she had confidence in Cowen and trice did she dodge the question.

For a few hours, Cowen looked sure to resign. There was a Fianna Fáil (majority coalition party of which Cowen was the president) parliamentary party meeting the next day and when it was postponed by a few hours, rumours were rife that Ireland would finally be rid of the most unpopular Taoiseach in its history. Reports that TDs were packing stationary into their cars surfaced which is apparently a sign of an imminent election.

But it was another false dawn. Cowen would spend some time consulting with the party, catharsis indefinitely postponed while Fianna Fáil navelgazed. Labour tabled a motion of no confidence in the Government but timing ensured that it could not be taken for another week.

After consulting with the parliamentary party, Cowen came out fighting. To quell doubt, he proposed a motion of confidence in himself as leader of the party, to be taken in the following days. Just three hours after Cowen’s announcement, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin declared his intention to vote against Cowen because “very survival of the party is at stake”.

And it is always all about the party. The motion of confidence was not about the state of the nation but about the state of one political party. Most of the Fianna Fáil Party did not declare one way or another but Martin’s position had support.

The day of the vote of confidence dragged for what seemed like forever. Even the staid media outlets were repeating speculation and rumours. Finally the doors to Leinster House opened to declare that the party was now united behind Mr Cowen and that the issue of his leadership and been “clearly and definitively” dealt with. It was like a body blow. How could even the Fianna Fáil TDs support this man? Martin resigned as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

It seemed we were stuck with Cowen for another while at least but the next two days brought a few developments. A total of seven senior ministers resigned and the situation came to a head on “Unholy Thursday” when the Tánaiste (Deputy Leader) could not say who lead the Ministery for Justice. The Dáil had to be suspended following rowdy protests from the opposition leaders, until Cowen could be found to explain what was going on. Article 28 of Bunreacht na hEireann (the Irish Constitution) states that the Government must not be smaller than 7 members or larger than 15 members and Ministers were rapidly disappearing.

Cowen had planned a mini reshuffle to give Cabinet experience to junior members of the party. It was an extraordinary blunder. Cowen neglected to mention his plans to the Greens, who were informed of developments by the media. The backbenchers who were offered ministries declined to serve. Others switched off their phones.

The Green Party put forward an ultimatum – any new ministers and they would walk. Later the same day, Cowen appeared, sulking, in the Dáil and reassigned the Ministerial portfolios to the remaining Cabinet members, who were now double and even triple jobbing. He also set 11 March as the date for a general election under Green pressure. He stressed his determination to fight the election as leader on Fianna Fáil.

The next day, Cowen resigned as party leader, but he did not resign as Taoiseach. This was widely seen as another cynical move to put party before country. Cowen’s resignation and the subsequent race to win the leadership of Fianna Fáil was the last straw for the Greens. Many are amazed that after almost four years, they took a stance at all.

Since the heave – the second heave –  the Fianna Fáil leadership election and the forthcoming general election, Cowen is nowhere to be found. One can imagine that he is haunting the halls of Leinster House, muttering phrases like I did it for Ireland or personal integrity.. I can but speculate as he does not appear in public any more.

But now Fianna Fáil has the shining new leadership of Micháel Martin. Despite his sitting at the Cabinet table during the boom and subsequent bust, he is regarded as a new broom. Unlike Cowen, Martin is media savvy and speaks well. The destruction that Fianna Fáil wrought on Ireland will be, in time, forgotten. They will rise again. To a ghost of a Taoiseach and zombie banks, Ireland can now add a vampire political party just waiting to suck the country dry again.