Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: Politics: The End Of The Party: How Fianna Fail Finally Lost Its Grip On Power by Bruce Arnold and Jason O'Toole

Gill & Macmillan, €16.99

RTÉ's Inside the Cowen Government demonstrated that there is no lack of interest in the events which led to the virtual annihilation of Fianna Fáil as a political force in last February's election.

The End of the Party traces its demise from the heady days of its three-in-a-row success in 2007 to its worst electoral performance. It's a story without heroes, with the possible improbable exception of Charlie McCreevy. It is also a story without a happy ending as Ireland's economic woes of recent years continue unabated.

This is an angry book, with the emotions of the authors clearly showing as they attempt to outline how we got from where we were to where we are.

There are swipes at Bertie Ahern, with the meltdown of both country and party traced to his tenure, and at the Greens for turning "yellow" by entering coalition. But the main opprobrium is focused on Brian Cowen, and his Finance Minister, the late Brian Lenihan.

The main events of the three turbulent years to last February are burned in most people's memories, and, indeed the book is less a narrative account of the Cowen premiership and more a collection of snapshots of its highs (few) and lows (many).

Mr Cowen became Taoiseach in early May 2008 and was immediately pitchforked into the Lisbon referendum campaign. Possibly distracted by his elevation, he got off to a bad start, admitting he had not read the whole treaty.

It was downhill from then on, with the tactical errors of Nice One repeated by the 'Yes' side. The advocates of a 'No' vote, marshalled by the able and articulate Declan Ganley, ran a superb campaign and won by a clear margin.

With government finances collapsing in tandem with the end of the building boom, an emergency Budget was scheduled for early October 2008.

It demonstrated more tactical ineptitude and necessitated an embarrassing volte face over a proposal to remove automatic medical cards from the over-70s. By then however, the fate of the government, and of the country, had been decided.

On the night of September 29, 2008, Messrs Cowen and Lenihan, fearing an immediate collapse of the Irish banks, and with other cabinet members consulted by phone, issued an unlimited guarantee on all deposits and borrowings of six major Irish banks.

It was the defining moment of Mr Cowen's government. The information available then suggested a considerable but manageable exposure of several billion; as we now know this was wrong by many multiples. The entrails of this will continue to be pored over for a long time to come and this book does its fair share, posing all the obvious (and not so obvious) questions.

As the banking horror story unfolded, Fianna Fáil's support declined. It dropped below 30pc in the wake of the guarantee and never really recovered, slipping to 23pc in early 2010 and hitting 18pc as the year ended. Not even a resounding success in the Lisbon re-run helped.

The authors are particularly incensed at the decision to hold a second referendum, castigating the 'Yes' campaign as a mixture of "fear, lies and an array of blatant illegalities".

Then and thereafter, the book suggests it was a case of holding on in the hope that something would turn up. There was too much respect for the ECB and not enough cognisance that most of Ireland's trade was with countries outside the eurozone.

There are chapters on NAMA (condemned), the first cabinet reshuffle (remember that? Killeen and Carey in), and Mr Cowen's drinking, as well as his failure or inability to communicate.

The pace picks up as the end approaches, and the book is riveting enough in the final chapters. The Sad Autumn of 2010 introduces the effective denouement, the arrival of Ajai Chopra and the bailout, the terms humiliating, even the way the procedure was handled is cringe making. The government was comprehensively bankrupt.

Indeed, as the authors note "the reality . . . at the end of November, was a set of fiscal circumstances about which people could do nothing, and a level of anger and hatred about which they could do a great deal". Fianna Fáil "had lied to them, betrayed them, robbed them and misled them".

There are chapters also on the competing claims, from Sean FitzPatrick and Sean Dunne, about the extent of Mr Cowen's contacts with Anglo Irish Bank. There is next to nothing about the invisible elephant, Ireland's structural budget deficit. But these are secondary. The guarantee and the bailout did for Fianna Fáil.

Sean Farrell is a retired diplomat

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