James Downey: O'Dea may be gone, but the Greens have lost too
Published 20/02/2010 | 05:00
The Green grassroots still includes some people of substance. On Thursday they revolted, and presented John Gormley with an ultimatum
WILLIE O'Dea resigned of his own volition. He didn't want to create a distraction from the Government's important work on behalf of the nation it serves so well.
Yes, and when this cold Lent finally gives way to warmth and growth the Easter Bunny will be hopping around as usual, symbolising the joys of spring.
Everybody knows what really happened, but let's just summarise for the benefit of anyone who has spent the last few days on a trip to Antarctica.
Willie got himself in a spot of bother -- a spot of bother, that is, by Irish standards and especially Fianna Fail standards. In a properly run country, it would have been seen at once as a resigning matter.
Fianna Fail responded in a highly typical manner. It sets out to play the game decisively and cleverly. It bounced the Greens into supporting an instant vote of confidence. It thereby turned cleverness into stupidity.
Fianna Fail, notoriously, does not do apologies. It does not do embarrassment. This incident shows that it does not do resignations very well either.
Nothing new here, of course. When we look into the history of heads that ended on plates in the past, we can see how they almost always caused a rumpus, big or small. You may remember how Bertie Ahern climbed every tree in North Dublin to see if he could spot misdemeanours. When he failed, he moaned that Ray Burke, "an honourable man", had been hounded out of office.
There have been notable exceptions. I won't go into the sorry saga surrounding the dismissal of Brian Lenihan senior, of blessed memory, but I can't but mention Jim McDaid. The totally innocent McDaid withdrew his nomination as defence minister at the behest of the Progressive Democrats. He behaved with such calm dignity that the affair caused hardly a ripple on the political waters.
Unlike the PDs, the Green Party prides itself on not seeking heads on plates. It has proclaimed openly that they do not want the role of Fianna Fail's moral mudguard. So it was reasonable enough for Brian Cowen and his advisers to assume that there was literally nothing with which the Greens would not put up.
On Ash Wednesday, then, the Government trotted out not only the most respected member of the Cabinet, Brian Lenihan junior, but a Green Cabinet minister, Eamon Ryan. More cleverality that went wrong. Ryan made a pitiful speech. His hands trembled as he read from a scrap of paper which someone had evidently shoved into his hand just before he entered the Dail Chamber. Enough, though, for the moment.
But not enough for the Green grassroots, who still include in their number some people of substance. On Thursday they revolted, and presented John Gormley with an ultimatum. He passed it on to the Taoiseach, who surrendered. So did Willie. Within 24 hours of getting a Dail vote of confidence under his belt, he was out.
What had changed, besides the Green revolt? Answer: Willie's tone. On Wednesday in the Dail, he had made one of his characteristically knockabout speeches. On Thursday, in his radio interview with Sean O'Rourke, he moved 180 degrees and assumed the role of the humble penitent. He whinged: "I'm a victim in this as well." The most memorable quote of the week, perhaps of the year. There are some things that not even Fianna Fail can get away with.
Goodness, though, how it kept on trying! On the radio yesterday morning, it put up another of their most respected figures, Chief Whip Pat Carey, to try to defend the indefensible. Apparently it can't see that embroiling the likes of Lenihan and Carey in such events can result only in diminishing these people's well-deserved reputations.
Something else it seems unable to see, despite the overwhelming evidence of the opinion polls: that the tectonic plates of public feeling have moved.
The television shots giving the reaction of people in the streets of Limerick told their own story. Willie's famous popularity did not prevent them saying, very quietly, that he had to go.
To be sure, they were only a handful, and others took the opposite line, citing "all he has done" for the city. Hang on a minute. This is Limerick, known for its gangsters, its horrendous unemployment figures and the suspension of the regeneration project. In all fairness, none of that is Willie O'Dea's fault, but it shows up the powerlessness of local politicians, even when they are national figures.
We also read during the week that Willie had six civil servants working for him, at the public expense, on constituency matters. These matters, we are told, included "unsolicited advice" on planning applications. Doubtless this scandalous arrangement applies in other ministers' constituencies too. It should be banned by law.
Does anybody come well out of this wretched business? Yes, indeed. The much-criticised media.
Sean O'Rourke's savaging of the rattled minister in that unforgettable interview will surely provide a model for broadcasters of the future -- though, mind you, it should come with a warning that the style is suitable only for professionals of long experience and high expertise. The 'Limerick Leader' journalists did a splendid job and rendered a major public service.
On the other side of the great divide between journalists and politicians, I believe the main losers, apart from poor Willie himself, are the Greens. How can they seize on a favourable issue on which to walk out of the Government? On Monday night one of Labour's rising stars, Senator Alex White, said he thought they had conceded so much that they could not find such an issue. He was wrong. One presented itself within 48 hours of his comments. They blew it, and Thursday's recovery does not compensate for the fact that they blew it.