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James Downey: Certain to be more twists in tale of party leadership

NEARLY 30 years ago, Charles J Haughey carried out an exercise in consultation with Fianna Fail deputies. The subject under discussion was whether he would remain leader of the Fianna Fail party. Deputies came out of their meetings with him proclaiming: "He's gone!"

But Haughey stayed. He had never intended to go -- unless he was pushed.

And neither did Brian Cowen when he carried out a similar exercise over the weekend. We have his own word for that. At his press conference yesterday evening, he said that he had never considered resigning.

So what was the consultation all about this time?

Haughey's son Sean -- deputy for Dublin North Central, where his Dail seat is in grave danger -- said he had found the party leader in a "philosophical" mood. It makes for a nice little picture, but it does not help the story along.

According to the Taoiseach's own version of the process, it was about "the best interests of the country". An improvement, that, on the number of times when, by some inexplicable slip of the tongue, he has put the party's interests first.

But what exactly does he mean by it? His version of the events of the last two and a half years is at odds with the experiences of 86pc of the population. And the remaining 14pc are at best loyal, not happy.

In Brian Cowen's Ireland, a united, decisive and competent Government has made tough decisions to overcome the worst financial crisis in 80 years and its efforts have borne fruit in the signs of economic recovery.

It has made mistakes, but succeeded in the face of "relentless" opposition. A curious claim. Some of us remember Fine Gael supporting the bank guarantee and other initiatives. We also remember the EU-IMF bailout, in which the Taoiseach refused to believe. And we remember the pity showered on us by the world's media.

'The Wall Street Journal' and the 'Financial Times' may be no less condescending, but more critical, when they examine some recent developments, such as the disclosures of the pressure brought to bear on the National Treasury Management Agency to put money (yours and mine) into insolvent banks.

Their concerns, though, were far from the minds of the backbenchers whose disquiet prompted yesterday's press conference and the Taoiseach's decision to table a motion of confidence in himself for Tuesday's parliamentary party meeting.

Indeed, for most of them the somewhat less broad concerns, the interests of the country and even the party, took second place at best.

What focused their minds was the calamitous opinion poll findings. At a level of 14pc, Fianna Fail would not fall to TD Ned O'Keeffe's apocalyptic forecast of 12 Dail seats in the general election, but 25 or fewer would become a live possibility.

So they have to make a calculation. What leader would have the best chance of saving a few seats? Brian Cowen, or someone else?

Once they start that game -- and of course they started it long ago -- they can get mired in complex follow-on calculations. But one stands out above the others. And nobody knows that better than their leader. Whose votes are they trying to attract?

Not only has the party lost the floating vote, they have lost two-thirds of the Fianna Fail vote as recorded at the 2007 General Election. Logically, it should devote most of its efforts to getting some of that back.

Fine, and Cowen's your man for that. But unless it can find a broader appeal, the party will throw away the cities of Dublin and Cork. In other words, it will cease to be a credible political party.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach seemed to suggest strongly that his own appeal would be very much to the traditional vote. His analysis of the state of play boiled down to the proposition that if Fine Gael and Labour had been in office throughout the crisis, things would have been much worse. Hard to believe.

Again and again, he talked about his respect for the parliamentary party. And he mentioned his affection for the party organisation.

What organisation might that be? The organisation that has lost its discipline and has no leadership? That is running two candidates in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, with the certain loss of one seat and possible loss of both? That is in some danger (mustn't exaggerate!) of coming in fourth after Sinn Fein in the national poll?

He did give a glimpse of his better side.

He said that the vote (confined to members of the Dail: no senators or MEPs) would be held by secret ballot. Charles J Haughey used to insist on a rollcall vote, in contravention of the party's own rules.

Mind you, there are some who think that people should stand up and be counted, and they have a point.

And he replied to one question in Irish. He speaks Irish well -- though not as well as Enda Kenny. No stumbling or hesitation, and of course no jargon.

But his answer was surely an answer prompted by hope more than confidence. He said he wanted to bring the story to an end.

The Fianna Fail story is not just the tale of one man and one disastrous administration. It goes back a long way, to CJ Haughey and beyond. And it hasn't ended.

Dismaying though the prospect is, we will see more twists in the tale.

Irish Independent