'Unluckiest man' insists on riding out his fortunes
Published 14/01/2011 | 05:00
FOR a man who puts such store in loyalty, who declared without a hint of irony when he was elected leader that he loved his party, and who is Fianna Fail to his fingertips, it must have been galling.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen sat at the top table of the Fianna Fail room on the fifth floor of Leinster House, facing his TDs, senators and ministers.
Alongside him sat his allies, John Curran and John Cregan, Chief and Deputy Chief Whip, and parliamentary party chair John Browne.
Behind the top table hang portraits of his six predecessors as Fianna Fail leaders, all of whom have occupied the office of Taoiseach.
Eamon de Valera, Jack Lynch, Charlie Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and the man Mr Cowen revered above them all: Sean Lemass.
As Mr Cowen sat there, Kildare TD and serial rebel Sean Power summed up the situation the Taoiseach faces in his own party.
"None of those six men behind you would be in the job if they were on 14pc," Mr Power said, alluding to Fianna Fail's dire poll ratings.
He told Mr Cowen the greatest honour those in the room could give one of their own was to elect them leader of the party. Most had been loyal to him, but there now was a dignified opportunity to step down if he wanted to take it.
Mr Cowen opened the meeting with a defence of himself. No leader had to put up with the level of talk and speculation about his position, he said.
But after storming one barn too many in defence of his leadership at parliamentary party meetings in the last 18 months, he now looked a beaten man to those present. "He was downbeat, he was defeated, he was glum," one TD said.
"Other parties have dealt with the leadership issue, we're still talking about it," Mr Cowen said. "I've been here before, we've discussed this before." He maintained he hadn't done anything wrong with Sean FitzPatrick.
The meeting was delayed by three hours, heightening expectations among TDs and ministers he was readying himself to stand down. But he didn't.
Instead, he offered something of a fudge: consultation with TDs to "address their concerns and to ascertain what's best in the interests of the party".
Those who wanted a leadership change could collect the 18 signatures to trigger a no-confidence motion, and Mr Cowen said he would respect the party rules.
TDs could ring him over the next 48 hours to pass on their concerns and rebel TD John McGuinness asked to be first on the phone-call list.
Mr Cowen said he knew the Kilkenny TD's views already, but Mr McGuinness said he wanted to speak to him anyway. Mr McGuinness put it up to would-be challengers too, saying they would "want to speak up now".
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan arrived into the meeting late, after spending the morning in Stormont with his northern counterpart Sammy Wilson. He and the other leadership contenders, Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin, were described as sitting stony-faced.
The meeting veered on to other topics, such as the finance and climate-change bills but another rebel, Tom Kitt, asked Mr Cowen to table a motion of confidence in himself. He refused.
Some took it Mr Cowen knew he didn't have the numbers to win, but Mr Cowen himself alluded to a constitutional problem if his confidence motion was defeated at party level yet he had to stay on as Taoiseach, as some are suggesting.
By most accounts, the Taoiseach gave an unsatisfactory answer, doing nothing to dispel the feeling that he is sleepwalking Fianna Fail to the polls.
Afterwards, TDs were exasperated. "That was the biggest shock of all," one said.
"Everyone knows he's straight, that there is nothing to the Seanie thing only optics, but the jig is up. I like the man, but God he is the most unlucky fella God put shoe leather under."