Lise Hand: Minister of No Defence his own worst enemy
Published 19/02/2010 | 05:00
It was the tone of voice that struck you. The sly, nudge-nudge, wink-wink insinuation of it. "I suppose I'm going a bit too far when I say this but I'd like to ask Mr Quinlivan is the brothel still closed?" Willie suggested to journalist Mike Dwane.
It sounded grubby when Labour's Joan Burton read out a transcript of the exchange during the confidence debate in the Dail on Wednesday, and it sounded sleazier still when the fateful taped conversation was played out across the national airwaves yesterday.
It was hard to see yesterday what exactly did it for the Defence Minister. It could have been the damning audio tape or his too-late contrition on RTE's 'News At One', or his unapologetic shape-throwing in the Dail chamber the night before. It could've been death-by-Twitter after Dan Boyle stuck a virtual knife in his side when he Tweeted that he had "lost confidence" in Willie just hours after the Green TDs -- caught on the hop by the Government's speedy counter-motion of confidence -- voted through gritted teeth to support him.
It was a perfect storm of hubris, defiance, denials, accusations, anger and apologies -- and it blew through Leinster House yesterday leaving chaos and confusion in its wake.
There was no sign of Willie on the corridors, but the day was all about him. The Thursday morning Order of Business is often a rowdy affair, but yesterday it spiralled out of control as the opposition lambasted the government side over the embattled minister's conduct.
Enda was like a dog with a bone. "The Government harbours a perjurer at the cabinet table," he thundered accusingly. It was chaotic. The House was suspended for 10 minutes, but there was worse to come for the Government.
Just before 1pm, the Government almost lost a vote when seven Fianna Fail TDs vanished into the ether, much to the frantic horror of Chief Whip Pat Carey. The opposition were jubilant. Fee fi fo fum, they smelled the blood of a Limerickman. As the voting continued past 1pm, the time when Willie was due to present himself for a grilling on 'News at One' following the playing of the tape, radios discreetly appeared in the chamber -- at the top of the stairs, Pat Rabbitte and several deputies huddled around to hear the Defence Minister's defence.
And Willie tried to put on the sackcloth and ashes and do penance, peppering his act of contrition with 'sorrys'. But he ended up setting himself on fire. "It was a stupid, silly mistake," he confessed. But Willie didn't regard it as a mortaller. "I'm not contemplating resigning," he declared. Same old self-regard. But was it too late? Senators and TDs and media milled around Leinster House. Willie or won't he?
But if there ever was a large clue as to the fate that awaited Willie, it was in the body language of Brian Cowen when he was asked about his Defence Minister in a doorstep interview at 2.30pm. He looked tired. It was a different leader to the one who had stood up in the Dail the night before when he announced: "I want to express my complete confidence and that of the Government in the Minister of Defence to continue to do his job."
Brian was hunched into himself as he fielded questions, offering the most threadbare of endorsements. And tellingly, when asked if he had considered, or was considering the position of his minister, he avoided a direct answer. "The confidence motion was taken yesterday. It was taken because a motion of no confidence was put down by opposition parties and as is normal you take up that challenge and deal with it," he said tersely. "He's been performing very well as Minister for Defence," he said.
Given his usual fierce defence of beleaguered colleagues, this was a stark contrast. This boded badly for Willie.
The sense of crisis continued to build. The Greens disappeared into a lengthy meeting. It looked destined to be tears before bedtime for either Willie or Dan Boyle. And then just before 9pm, he became the Minister of No Defence. Copies of his resignation letter were circulated. He had hoisted the white flag and fallen on his sword with the "deepest regret".
At 9.30pm, a sombre Green leader strode out of Government Buildings and tried to explain his party's baffling overnight U-turn. "There were a number of issues that didn't ring right with our parliamentary party," he began.
John Gormley may have risen up and delivered the final blow. But in the end, the Minister of Defence proved to be his own worst enemy.