Saturday 1 November 2014

Lise Hand: Never mind GUBU, these are the mad last days of BIFFO

Published 21/01/2011 | 05:00

Never mind GUBU -- this was BIFFO. Bungled. Ignominious. Frenzied. Flabbergasting. Overwrought.

They tumbled pell-mell out of the Dail chamber, ashen-faced and angry.

They didn't even wait to find a quiet corner of Leinster House where they could mutter about their leader.

Fianna Fail ministers, former ministers and backbenchers milled around together, suddenly united by what had just unfolded in the Dail. They were oblivious to a posse of incredulous journalists who were standing stock-still a few feet away. Or maybe they were just beyond caring.

Micheal Martin -- now villain-turned-hero -- was swarmed by the two Lenihans, Brian and Conor. Then Beverley Flynn joined in, and Michael Kennedy, Maire Hoctor and John McGuinness.

Heads bent together, the discussion was intense and animated. This was no quiet cabal -- it was an overt and spontaneous outpouring of rage, and it was all flowing in the direction of Brian Cowen, extinguishing the spark of his comeback.

There was never a day like it in Leinster House, not since the febrile, chaotic GUBU days almost three decades ago.

Frantic discussions and plotting and spin and counter-spin were happening on every corner of the House. On one corridor Brian Lenihan was putting out one version of the barely comprehensible events of the day to reporters, when Mary Hanafin came around the corner.

Both looked startled. A flustered Brian leaned over and pecked Mary on the cheek. "I don't know what the f**k I'm kissing you for," she barked at Brian, only half-jokingly.

"What are you telling this shower?" she asked him, nodding at the media. "F**k all," retorted the Finance Minister.

It was a world gone mad -- one in which Mary Hanafin unleashes the eff-word, and one in which Brian Cowen spectacularly snatches defeat right out of the jaws of victory by launching one of the most inept, idiotic, incomprehensible, ill-judged and cack-handed strokes in the stroke-laden history of Irish politics.

It had taken 36 hours and five ministerial resignations to plunge an already precarious Government right to the edge of the precipice.

It all began with a sudden cascade of ministerial resignations. Down they fell like dominos. Mary Harney went at 9pm on Wednesday, and then by 11pm Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen had handed in their letters.

And then just before 10am yesterday, Batt O'Keeffe announced he was going too.

Nobody knew exactly what would happen next. Leinster House had been alive with rumours the previous day that the Taoiseach was planning a wide reshuffle -- but two months out from an election that seemed too eccentric to be true.

The Greens went into conclave. Had they known that Brian was planning a full-scale overhaul of his Cabinet, even at this 11th hour? Had he kept them fully in the loop or had he planned to pull a fast one on them -- a Biffo-style, take-it-or-leave-it-lads manoeuvre?

Predictably the Order of Business rapidly descended into disorder as the opposition tried in vain to find out what was going on. "These are the last days of the worst government in the history of the State," raged Enda, while Eamon wanted to know who was now in charge of the gardai, the Army and the health service.

The Taoiseach would be in to explain the situation.

It was incredible. A third of the Fianna Fail cabinet was gone, the two Green ministers were in an emergency meeting, and the Taoiseach was nowhere.

Mercifully the House was suspended until 1.30pm. And then it happened -- one of the most extraordinary acts of self-destruction ever committed by a Taoiseach.

At 1.30pm Brian Cowen stood up in the Dail and announced that he was "reassigning" the portfolios. The surviving ministers sat stony-faced as they were landed with their new briefs.

There would be no reshuffle. But there was an election date, Friday, March 11. Audible whispers rustled through the opposition benches. But there wasn't a sound from the members of Fianna Fail.

A desperate Taoiseach tried to rally the soldiers with one last bellow. He raged against the dying of the light. "I want to get us through the hard times and to see the people of our country prosper," he shouted. But it was a hollow dream.

At one fell swoop he was alone. Betrayed backbenchers understood that the Greens had forced Brian Cowen to climb down once again.

What had he been thinking, trying to organise a reshuffle which would have enraged the electorate as a cynical, attention-grabbing, pointless exercise? The gag had gone around Leinster House that all the backbenchers had their phones switched off for fear they would get a call from the Taoiseach offering promotion.

One backbencher was calling the Taoiseach 'Skippy' -- "for his ability to find trouble every week".

Brian Cowen's future looks bleak. What a messy, mad end to the 30th Dail. These are indeed the BIFFO days.

Irish Independent

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