Friday 9 December 2016

The worst week for the worst Taoiseach in the State's history

The cynical attempt to parachute six new faces into the Cabinet was the final nail in Cowen's coffin, writes Daniel McConnell

Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00

Brian Cowen with chief whip John Curran and Tanaiste & Minister for Education & Skills & Health & Children Mary Coughlan. Photo: PA
Brian Cowen with chief whip John Curran and Tanaiste & Minister for Education & Skills & Health & Children Mary Coughlan. Photo: PA

'It's all going wrong, come to my office, now," is what a panicky and brooding Brian Cowen said to one of his Fianna Fail ministers at about 10am on Thursday morning.

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"The f**king Greens are at it again, and now they are saying they'll stop us replacing those who have resigned," he is said to have said to his inner circle, like Defence Minister Tony Killeen and Chief Whip John Curran who were in crisis mode.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan had arrived and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was seen arriving at about 10.20am.

To say things were going wrong was a typical Cowen understatement. Two hours earlier on RTE's Morning Ireland, Paul Gogarty set the cat amongst the pigeons by delivering a damning indictment of Cowen's "cynical" attempt to insert six new faces into the Cabinet, only weeks from an election.

Gogarty's derision was to set the tone for what would turn out to be Cowen's worst ever day in office.

By the time he rang the few remaining supporters he had left at the Cabinet table, Cowen was in a desperate fight to save his already stricken government.

Since 7am, he was locked in a tense dialogue with his junior coalition partners, the Greens, who were threatening to pull the plug on the Government at any minute.

Less than three hours later, Cowen's humiliation was complete. The Greens were not for moving and he was forced to admit to the Dail that his audacious plan to bring in "fresh blood" had failed spectacularly.

Seventy-two hours after dismissing the challenge of Micheal Martin, and appearing to quell once and for all the issue of his leadership, Cowen's position once again was in jeopardy.

Even some of those who supported Cowen on Tuesday were stunned at how badly wrong their leader had gotten things. The events of Wednesday and Thursday were as tumultuous, epic and surreal as ever seen in Leinster House, with many comparisons being made to the GUBU days of Charles Haughey's tenure in the early 1980s.

A tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions, it involved a failed political assassination, a botched major Cabinet reshuffle, massive communication breakdown at senior governmental level, open revolt by junior ministers, the crumbling of the greatest political machine in this country's history before our eyes, and ultimately a wounded, isolated leader whose legacy is forever ruined.

Cowen's misadventure began this day a week ago, when he failed to listen to John Gormley's warning that replacing Cabinet ministers "was not a good idea".

Cowen had called Gormley ahead of his press conference at the Alexander Hotel to inform him of his intention not to resign and that he was putting down a motion of confidence in himself at the FF party meeting, to be held two days later.

TUESDAY

By mid-morning on Tuesday, all the signs were that Cowen had done enough over the weekend to win the confidence of the majority of his party. Despite a heavy presence in the media throughout Monday, Martin's camp were quietly accepting they would lose the vote.

There have since been many comments that Cowen and his machine made promises that positions would become available in return for support during discussions last weekend.

"Of course they were, it was all about shoring up the vote and the reshuffle was a ploy to garner support," said one senior party member.

At about 5.30pm, after the usual weekly Cabinet meeting, Cowen and his 70 party colleagues gathered at the FF meeting room on the fifth floor in Leinster House.

Shortly after 5.45pm, a hush descended upon the room, and Cowen opened the "cordial and polite" meeting with a measured but strong defence of his personal reputation and his operating style.

Many present said Martin then delivered what some described as a commanding speech, outlining why he was not supporting the motion and why the party needed a change in leader.

Mary Hanafin's oblique speech, in which she said she would "vote in accordance with what she had said to the Taoiseach in their private conversation" angered many present and ended any remote chance she had of becoming leader.

It was shortly after 9pm that the news came through that Cowen had prevailed. As it was a secret ballot, the result was not made public.

Only the two tellers, former Ceann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon and Michael Moynihan, would know the margin of victory.

There was some speculation that it was as low as three votes (37 to 34), but since then a margin of two to one has been spoken about.

Within minutes, Cowen was on RTE news saying the party was now united behind him and his position was secure.

He reiterated the strong friendship and respect he enjoyed with Martin.

Freezing journalists, gathered on the plinth, scrambled for reaction while amid the chaos, Martin, the defeated pretender, emerged to address the media to announce his resignation from cabinet.

"I was clear that I would insist on my resignation if my views did not prevail in the vote," he said.

Cowen, clearly boosted by this vote of confidence, didn't make for the Dail bar, but for his office where members of his family and some friends had gathered. The mood was relaxed and warm and Cowen enjoyed the occasion. He made for home shortly before midnight.

The main loser of Tuesday was Brian Lenihan, who was fighting a PR battle with backbenchers like John McGuinness, Michael Kennedy and Sean Power, who accused him of being duplicitous in terms of his support for Cowen. They expressed their surprise at Lenihan's expression of support for Cowen, given his recent contrary indications to them in previous weeks.

WEDNESDAY

With the vote of confidence now behind him, Cowen turned again to the idea of "exercising his prerogative to appoint people to Cabinet positions, given the number of FF retiring ministers".

Following their discussions the previous Sunday, the two Government parties met in Government Buildings early on Wednesday for an hour-and-a-half to talk about the climate change legislation and to decide a date for the election.

Cowen was flanked by Curran and Killeen. On the Green side, Gormley came in with Minister Eamon Ryan and Senator Dan Boyle.

During the proceedings, Cowen interjected and said he wanted to discuss an important issue -- the need to refresh his Government front bench. He pressed his desire for a reshuffle and mentioned Martin and three retiring ministers, who he wanted replaced immediately -- Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen.

There was no mention of Mary Harney or Batt O'Keeffe, even though the Taoiseach knew both were intent on stepping down. As part of that discussion, Cowen said he himself was taking on the duties of Foreign Affairs.

But, from this point onwards, a major divergence of opinion emerges between Fianna Fail and the Greens.

Gormley and Co raised two main objections at the meeting. The first was that public perception would be that this was a cynical 'jobs for the boys' exercise. The second was a more crucial point; that it would be seen as a blatant attempt to prolong the life of the Government.

According to his spokesman, Cowen said that it was his prerogative to change the FF members of the Cabinet without discussion, and that government policy can't be determined by perception.

He also reinforced his position that the Dail would rise as soon as the Finance Bill was passed, therefore the Green's concern of a delay were unfounded.

The three FFers took it that the objections had been dealt with and that the Greens were on board. Indeed, Killeen said he only realised during the meeting that he was going to be resigning later that day.

"So the first thing I did after the meeting was go back to my office and write a resignation letter. I happened to meet the Taoiseach on the ministers' corridor in Government Buildings and handed him the letter," he said.

But the Greens' account of the meeting is markedly different. Gormley said they had strongly argued against replacing ministers at this late stage. "Let me be clear and unequivocal in this. On Sunday, the fact is I said to the Taoiseach it was not a good idea. Then at the meeting [on Wednesday], we could not have been clearer. Eamon Ryan said this was not a good idea, this sent out all of the wrong signals. The Irish people were suffering and furious and this would be the final insult."

He added: "We had expected we would be listened to, we were told that Mr Cowen was taking Mr Martin's duties, and that it would be left at that. We had no idea, no idea about the other resignations and then it was presented to us as a fait accompli almost.

"It took us by surprise. I had hoped there would have been a further discussion."

Critically, the Greens did not explicitly say they would not vote for Cowen's proposed replacements and it is this lack of clarity which appears to be the crux of the dispute.

The meeting broke up and both sides went their separate ways. Cowen, in the belief he had his deal sorted, went in to the Dail to take Leaders' Questions, during which he appeared good-humoured and relaxed as he exchanging blows with Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore.

He then went back to his office and met with party colleagues throughout the day. At 6pm he made his way into the members' part of the Dail bar, where he enjoyed at least three pints with colleagues including John Cregan, Dara Calleary and Billy Kelleher.

"There were people in there who were supporting him and opposed him. There was no talk of the events of the previous day, it was just casual," said one FF TD.

At the same time, Gormley appeared on RTE insisting his party would need to be consulted before any changes were made. He made it clear that no major reshuffle could be considered without further discussions. He referred to Micheal Martin and made a reference to Dermot Ahern that he would not object to replacing him, given he was unable to perform his duties from hospital. He said there might be a case for him to go.

A short time later, an angry Dermot Ahern rang Gormley to say that he was in his office and was perfectly capable of performing his duties as a minister.

At 7.30pm Cowen left the bar and returned to his office in Government Buildings.

Then began an astonishing and surreal series of events: Mary Harney passed Gormley in the corridor and failed to mention her imminent resignation announcement, which came two hours later. He only found out when his wife Penny saw the announcement on the news.

It has been confirmed that at 10.30pm O'Keeffe also handed in his resignation to his best friend in politics, though that was not announced until the following morning.

Given the announcement that Cowen was assuming Martin's Foreign Affairs duties "for the time being," throughout Wednesday afternoon, rumours of a major reshuffle swept through Leinster House. Even those who were being tipped for promotion greeted the news with trepidation. "It'd be a kiss of death at this stage," said Sean Connick.

In the wake of Harney's announcement, the rumour mill went into overdrive in the Dail bar and in the bars around Leinster House about a reshuffle of at least five or six ministers. Names mentioned for promotion included Chief Whip Curran, Sean Connick, Dara Calleary, Dick Roche, Margaret Conlon, and Darragh O'Brien. These say they never received a call from Cowen offering anything.

Barry Andrews did get a call. Cowen phoned him at home after midnight and offered the Justice portfolio. He declined on the basis he did not want to be seen to abandon the difficult children's portfolio so late in the day. Whatever Cowen's belief on Wednesday night, it was clear that Gormley's Six One News interview showed agreement had not been reached on such a major reshuffle.

At 22.55pm, Cowen released a terse statement confirming the resignations of Killeen, Ahern and Dempsey.

"In accordance with the Constitution the Taoiseach will submit these letters of resignation to the President with a recommendation that they be accepted," the statement said. The only problem was, Gormley knew nothing about what was going on.

THURSDAY

Cowen's failure to communicate further with his junior coalition partner again led him to be woken by a curt phone call from Gormley on Thursday shortly after 7am.

"I rang him and I expressed my surprise and dismay at what happened," the Green leader said. Others on radio that morning also expressed their concern. Gogarty and FF's Ned O'Keeffe made their views known that the planned reshuffle was not a good idea. O'Keeffe for his part drew the ire of his Taoiseach, who called him to chastise him for his comments.

Gogarty's outburst seems to have really spooked his party colleagues, who by the time they met at 9.30am were totally opposed to replacing the six departed ministers.

When word began spreading that O'Keeffe had also resigned, tensions mounted.

As Mary Coughlan was making her way to the Dail to take questions, the first of three meetings between the coalition partners took place. Gormley went alone the first time. He made it clear that none of the departing ministers could be replaced. The Greens also called on Cowen to name the date of the election. If he didn't, they were pulling out of Government.

Brian Lenihan, who had remained at government buildings, sought to convince the Greens to change their mind, but they were not for turning.

At the second meeting, Gormley was joined by Mary White. The last meeting also included Eamon Ryan.

Cowen's mood was described as tetchy, grumpy and sullen -- but he was said to be "in control".

Once the initial proposal to replace the six ministers was dead, it was put to the Greens would they support appointments to the key ministries of Health and Justice, given the security and financial responsibilities of those portfolios. They said they would need time to discuss among themselves.

When they reconvened, they indicated again they were not willing to accept that proposal and they were willing to pull out of government.

They hastily drafted a statement for immediate release and preparations were made for a press conference where Gormley would announce they were pulling out of Government. Cowen and Lenihan again asked them were they prepared to accept any new minister. They made it clear they were not.

By this stage more of the remaining FF ministers began arriving, as the Dail was suspended and then adjourned until 1.30pm, at which stage the Taoiseach would make a statement.

A number of the FF ministers, including Hanafin, said they did not think the reshuffle was a good idea.

By that stage, another problem was that the President had been informed to expect the resignations of the ministers. Gormley's earlier suggestion that they rescind their resignations was no longer possible and it was then that the option of reassigning ministries came on the table.

It has been confirmed that the final arrangement of reassigning the portfolios was decided only minutes before Cowen entered the Dail. It has also been said that Cowen didn't have the agreement of the Greens to the final allocation of ministries when he addressed the House.

"They hadn't signed off on that and he was working on the assumption that even if the Greens did go, we would have seven ministers and they had given a commitment to support the Finance Bill, even if they were out of Government," one senior government source said. As he spoke, the faces of those behind him looked ashen and stunned.

The absence of the Greens during the announcement was stark and gave much ammunition to the opposition.

Moments later, outside the chamber, an impromptu gathering of Fianna Fail TDs and junior ministers, who were joined by Brian Lenihan, began venting their fury at what they had just seen.

"The whole thing is a f**king disaster, an utter disgrace," said Michael Kennedy. Others present included Micheal Martin, John McGuinness, Maire Hoctor, Junior Minister Conor Lenihan and Beverley Flynn, who continued to speak within earshot of journalists.

"Go back to your constituencies and canvass," those gathered were told by Martin. Looking for leadership, those gathered asked Martin was he becoming Director of Elections. He said he wasn't.

The gathering broke up. Cowen meanwhile, by now an isolated, hugely damaged figure, went back to his office.

Outside, reaction was fierce. Conor Lenihan led the charge for Cowen to step down saying that the issue of the leadership was back on the agenda.

"It is up to those who supported him on Tuesday to go to him now and to consider his position. This is a damning indictment on our party and the public will be furious at this. Disaster," said Lenihan.

Throughout the afternoon, people's attentions moved to the Greens, who had remained in conclave for several hours.

They eventually broke their silence at 5pm at a packed press conference at the Merrion Hotel. Gormley, Ryan et al made it clear they knew nothing of the previous night and that they had emphatically stated their opposition to the idea of a reshuffle.

Later that night, Dan Boyle, on Vincent Browne's show on TV3, said he told the meeting that they couldn't support a vote, a statement since strongly challenged by the FF side.

FRIDAY

The morning papers are dominated by the fall-out of Cowen's disastrous manoeuvrings the day before. On Morning Ireland, Curran and Trevor Sargent clash over what was agreed at the Wednesday meeting. Conor Lenihan makes several media appearances ,calling on Cowen to go. Michael McGrath TD also called on Cowen to step down and that movements were afoot to get him to go.

SATURDAY

Amid overwhelming silence from all sides, Cowen addresses the media at 2pm to announce his resignation as FF leader. However, he will remain on as Taoiseach.

It was the only possible ending to the worst week in the life of the worst Taoiseach in the history of the State.

Sunday Independent

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