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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Why Taoiseach's political hangover is far from over

Published 20/09/2010 | 05:00

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Taoiseach Brian Cowen is heading into another 10 days, at least, of uncertainty over his future in office.

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Suffering from the longest hangover in his political career, Cowen just can't shake off the fallout from his infamous late- night drinking session and his disastrous 'Morning Ireland' interview.

The lingering controversy means there is still a whiff of blood emanating from the Taoiseach and he has chalked up ample enemies within Fianna Fail to ensure the affair kicks along.

The lengthy break for the summer means the Dail and Seanad will not return until Wednesday week.

Cowen is fortunate that Fianna Fail TDs and senators were not meeting in the latter stages of last week or early this week as there was no forum for them to vent their anger at the damage he has done to the party.

But there are downsides too, as he seeks to see off the crisis surrounding his leadership.

Fianna Fail's parliamentary party meeting in 10 days' time is now lining up as the climax to the affair. Cowen's fate may be decided before that point but if gets that far he will have to put in a barnstorming performance at that stage to keep enough of his troops onside and prevent a full-scale leadership heave.

In the intervening period, the stability of his position may not actually improve. Pollsters are due in the field this week for a couple of opinion polls due out before the end of September.

Those polls will be viewed sceptically by Cowen's detractors and are unlikely to reflect well on the Taoiseach after his worst week of criticism to date.

The only plus point for Cowen is the adjustment in the methodology by one prominent polling company, from which Fianna Fail support may actually benefit.

The Government is also being distracted by its economic misfortunes, with all eyes on a crucial €1bn sale of bonds by the National Treasury Management Agency tomorrow.

The continuing instability also means the Government is anxious to bring certainty to the cost and timescale envisaged for the solution to Anglo Irish Bank.

The coalition doesn't need the focus to be on a limping Taoiseach at this time.

There appears to be a growing acceptance within his party that he is damaged beyond repair.

The only question arising is over whether sacking the captain would cause the already sinking ship to topple over.

The absence of an agreed successor and the instability a replacement could cause is what's currently keeping him in the Fianna Fail leadership.

The notion of Brian Lenihan being the knight on a white horse who would take over by popular acclaim following a bloodless coup ignores the sour taste left by the same process being initiated two years ago.

In his capacity as Finance Minister, Tanaiste, Fianna Fail deputy leader and darling of the party backbenchers, Cowen was always the favourite to ascend.

But his predecessor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, appeared to cross a line when he effectively anointed him as leader-in-waiting after the 2007 general election.

Dermot Ahern voiced his dissatisfaction, accusing Bertie Ahern of "jumping the gun" by naming Cowen as his "obvious successor" as there would be no vacancy for some time.

The gap before it became an issue wasn't all that long and nine months' later, Bertie Ahern resigned and Cowen became leader in an uncontested nomination.

Dermot Ahern's own leadership ambitions have always been evident and colleagues say he won't let the opportunity pass up again.

Micheal Martin would also be in the frame, even if he calculated he wouldn't make it on this occasion.

Mary Hanafin would also have to declare if she ever wanted to hold the job, even if she knew she'd be a long shot.

Beyond the next general election, leadership contenders at that point would need to signal intent.

Looking across to the opposition benches, Fianna Fail's leading lights will be aware Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore didn't get the leadership on the first shot.

Lenihan played down suggestions he was canvassing support for the position and Ahern, Martin and Hanafin have all been supportive of Cowen's position.

The Taoiseach's fate appears to be out of his own hands at this point and a further push would see him gone from office.

However, Cowen loyalists will be encouraging their man to hold on and ride out the storm.

He has faced adversity before, most recently in the wake of the botched Cabinet reshuffle, and got the coalition over the hurdles of the Lisbon Treaty, the State banking guarantee and the equivalent of four budgets in the space of 18 months.

Likewise, the failed Fine Gael leadership heave proved a leader can cling on even when half his front ranks want him gone.

Nobody in the Government is volunteering to take out Cowen and the crucial decisions to be taken on the budgetary and banking fronts in the coming months would caution against any change.

But this is politics.

Irish Independent

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