Eoghan Harris: Lenihan can save Fianna Fail, with help from Cowen
Published 23/01/2011 | 05:00
THIS weekend the media will mangle what is left of Brian Cowen. For a few weeks you will be able to walk from one end of Ireland to another without finding anyone to say a good word about him. So my duty is plain.
One of the obligations of a public commentator is to speak up for those who are dead, or misunderstood, or poor at public relations. That is why I have defended murdered southern Protestants, Northern Unionists and Israel. But it was a lot tougher making a case for Brian Cowen.
Cowen was his own worst enemy. But he was still a better man than the toxic media critics I call the Three Ms, aka the Mahon Media Mob, the herd of hacks who got a taste for taking down Taoisigh at the Mahon Tribunal.
The Three Ms hounded Bertie Ahern out of office, then hailed Cowen to high heaven, then turned on him, then hailed Brian Lenihan to high heaven, then turned on him, and now hails Micheal Martin to high heaven although he ran a feeble campaign. If I were Martin I would be very afraid of my new found media friends.
Tragically for Cowen, he came close to rescuing his reputation last Tuesday when he won the vote of confidence. But between Wednesday and Thursday morning he blew it -- but with a lot of help from the Three Ms. Last week, the Three Ms first targeted Lenihan and then moved on to make Cowen's mistakes look even worse than they were.
The Three Ms targeted Lenihan because they had plunged heavily on Martin. But Lenihan spoiled the coronation of Martin by going on RTE radio to support Cowen. For Lenihan it was the perfectly logical thing to do.
Lenihan wants to be leader of Fianna Fail. Martin is his rival. But last Tuesday, having done the tots, Lenihan decided his best move was to back Cowen until after the general election. Hardball but hardly a crime.
But within hours the media herd was mooing out the same message: that Lenihan had been badly damaged. The truth was that the Three Ms had invested heavily in Martin, and when he lost they abused their media power by taking it out on Lenihan.
Let me now turn to the equally mendacious media reporting of Brian Cowen's last days. This mendacity goes back to Cowen's first few months in office. Back in 2007 the Three Ms lavished fulsome -- in the fake sense of the word -- praise on Cowen so as to advance their anti-Ahern agenda.
One of their more nonsensical mantras is that Cowen took the 2007 General Election campaign by "the scruff of the neck" and won it for Fianna Fail. The fact is that Cowen conducted one good press conference. But what decided the general election was Ahern beating Enda Kenny in the RTE television debate.
After Ahern stepped down in 2007, I favoured Lenihan for leader. Back then Lenihan did not register on the media radar. Indeed I was the first journalist to properly praise his political skills, with two columns for this paper, while he was still Minister for Justice.
But once Cowen took over I thought he deserved a decent run. So when the Mahon Media Mob predictably turned on him and belatedly began to back Lenihan, I continued to try and see Cowen's side of the story. And there were two sides to the story of the botched reshuffle.
Cowen side is that he took soundings about his leadership last weekend. Although many of them are now suffering from a sudden loss of memory, the fact is that a long procession of Fianna Fail TDs told Cowen that he should fill any vacant Cabinet posts with fresh faces. So he felt under pressure to do so.
But if the TDs are trying to rewrite history, so are the Three Ms. As late as Wednesday there was no real adverse media reaction to Cowen's proposed reshuffle. And the evidence in the editorial in last Thursday's Irish Times, which was filed on Wednesday evening, is completely laid back about the Taoiseach's proposed reshuffle. Let me give you a full flavour.
"In the meantime -- and in spite of grumbles of 'jobs for the boys' from the Green Party -- the Taoiseach will now refresh his Cabinet by replacing Mr Martin as well as Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen, who have all tendered their resignations. A very substantial shuffle will now follow which, despite what the Greens may think, is the Taoiseach's sole prerogative. It may serve to refresh the face of Fianna Fail." (my italics).
The editorial shows, that as late as last Wednesday evening, the Irish Times was not throwing up its hands in horror at the prospect of a reshuffle. Neither were the Fianna Fail TDs, no matter what they may say now. No wonder Cowen felt he had carte blanche to speed up the Harney and O'Keeffe resignations and go for a radical reshuffle.
The Greens now tell us that clearly they told the Taoiseach that this was not acceptable to them. But the clear conflict between the recollection of the Green team (John Gormley, Eamon Ryan and Dan Boyle) and that of the Fianna Fail team (Brian Cowen, John Curran and Tony Killeen) poses a major problem.
During the Donal De Roiste case, I had personal experience of Killeen's straight talking. And the Greens are notorious for their ambiguous way with words. So I believe that while both parties believe they are telling the truth as they see it, the probability is that the Greens did not lay it clearly on the line to Cowen but made mewing noises that fell far short of saying: no way, or we will bring down the Government.
Cowen deserves to bear the brunt of the blame. Unlike Bertie Ahern, he did not have the political skills to nail down the deal with the Greens. But he does not deserve to be abused like a dog for attempting a reshuffle in a desperate attempt to raise the profile of a few Fianna Fail candidates so as to save their seats. Although you may be too angry to accept this right now, it is important to Irish democracy that Fianna Fail is not destroyed.
Let me spell it out. It is important that a former leader of the IRA does not become the future leader of the Opposition in Dail Eireann. It is important that Fianna Fail survives because as long as the IRA exists we benefit from two centrist parties. It is important that Fianna Fail is led by the right person in the long run.
Martin is not the right person. He lacks the courageous, conservative streak that could shift Fianna Fail to the only position from which it can recover: slightly right of centre. He offers nothing but politically correct pap on issues ranging from Israel to the protected public sector -- which he singled out for praise in his two post-heave speeches.
Lenihan is by far the best candidate to carry Fianna Fail through a period of transition. And in spite of the Three Ms' attempt to damage him, the public has not forgotten his cold courage in coping with cancer. He has what are the three traits of a great leader: character and courage and communication. And he would destroy Kenny and Gilmore in television debates.
Long term, Fianna Fail should look to a really young leader. That is why I hope a real reformer like senator Mark McSharry takes a seat at the forthcoming general election. And here Brian Cowen can play a crucial part.
Cowen has the guts for a general election. His party must find a place for him in the front line. Because under Lenihan as leader and with Cowen in charge of the Swat teams, Fianna Fail could make a fight of it yet.