Wednesday 16 October 2019

Lise Hand: Year started as it was to continue -- in mayhem

Lise Hand

THE hectic tone of 2011 was set straight out of the gate when a battered Dail resumed on January 12.

It was straightaway plunged into fresh crisis as Taoiseach Brian Cowen faced a barrage of questions over a jolly day in July 2008 he'd spent in Druid's Glen playing golf and dining with a group which included Anglo chairman Sean FitzPatrick and a director of the bank, Gary McGann.

These revelations were the spark which lit the tinderbox under the 30th Dail, and two weeks of unprecedented mayhem ensued.

The heave against Brian Cowen was launched, but on January 15 he came out fighting at a press conference and vowed to stay on. His only declared challenger, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, announced the next evening he would oppose his leader in a vote of no confidence tabled for the following week, though peculiarly he was staying on in Cabinet. On January 18, a triumphant Taoiseach prevailed and Micheal resigned.

But then in a spectacularly farcical miscalculation, Brian attempted a bizarre reshuffle.

On January 19, ministers Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen suddenly resigned, followed the next morning by Batt O'Keeffe.

This caused a day of uproar and open revolt, with disbelief coming from all sides of the chamber when a stymied and isolated Taoiseach redistributed the vacant posts among the handful of grim-faced ministers on his front bench.

Afterwards all hell broke loose outside the chamber with furious Fianna Fail backbenchers demanding that Mr Martin and Brian Lenihan make their move immediately.

Mr Cowen's fate was sealed, and on January 22 he announced his resignation as leader of Fianna Fail -- but not as Taoiseach -- at a hastily-organised press conference.

But he was captain of a scuppered ship, and the next afternoon the Greens resigned from government while simultaneously explaining they would vote with the Government on the Finance Bill from the opposition benches.

It was an extraordinarily messy, protracted death of a government, and Mr Cowen finally executed a mercy killing on the 30th Dail on February 1, with the election scheduled for February 25.

Oddly, the election campaign was lacking in the usual suspense and major dogfights -- the biggest spat was between Vincent Browne and Enda Kenny, with the Man Who Would be Taoiseach refusing to take part in the TV3 debate, declaring he was taking the delayed hump with the broadcaster's suggestion the previous October that Enda "should go into a dark room with a gun and a bottle of whiskey".

The result, a Fine Gael/ Labour coalition, was predictable, and the only uncertainty was just how many seats Fianna Fail would lose.

But not in their most frightful nightmares did the party anticipate the extent of the massacre on February 26. They had plummeted from 77 seats to just 20, while Fine Gael shot up to 76 seats.

The bunting was up by May 17 when Queen Elizabeth landed in Ireland and emerged from the plane wearing a wide smile and a emerald-green outfit for the first state visit to the Republic by a British monarch.

Four extraordinary days followed with a series of memorable moments, including the queen bowing her head before the memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, her visit to Croker; her speech in Dublin Castle, which she began with, "A Uachtarain agus a chairde"; her emotional reaction to the standing ovation in the Convention Centre, and her having the craic in Cork's English Market.

But a shadow was cast over the visit by the death on May 19 of Dr Garret FitzGerald at the age of 85. The indefatigable former Taoiseach had worked almost up until his death, and was buried on May 22.

The next day, May 23, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle arrived for a whirlwind visit. They headed for the Aras to meet President McAleese, and then on to Farmleigh for a chat with the Taoiseach, before heading down to discover the US president's roots in the tiny Tipperary village of Moneygall. And Barack delighted the folk of Ireland and the heads of Diageo by sinking a pint of Guinness.

Then it was back to Dublin for a speech in front of College Green. "This little country, that inspires the biggest things -- your best days are still ahead," he told the huge crowd.

But there was a dark day on June 10 when Mr Lenihan died aged 52 after a brave battle against cancer, even as he fought to rescue the economy.

The last third of 2011 was dominated by a bonkers presidential contest. Labour had selected Michael D Higgins, which was no surprise, but on July 9 the Fine Gael family picked Gay Mitchell, which came as a shock, particularly to Mr Kenny. Dragon Sean Gallagher and Independents Mary Davis and Dana threw in their hats. Sinn Fein unveiled Martin McGuinness.

But it was Senator David Norris who hogged all the early headlines; he first threw his chapeau in the ring in March, only to retrieve it on August 2 after controversy arose over the Ezra Nawi clemency letters.

However, buoyed by poll figures which showed him to remain a frontrunner for the presidency, he announced his return on the 'Late Late Show' on September 16.

It was a seven-way wacky race: a poll on October 6 saw Mr Gallagher take over as the red-hot favourite; there were revelations about Dana's US citizenship and an ugly family feud; questions on quangos for Ms Davis, and in Athlone Mr McGuinness was confronted by David Kelly, the son of soldier Peter Kelly who was killed by the IRA in 1983.

BUT three televised debates provided the most dramatic moments of the race; Mr Browne's book-brandishing ambush of Mr McGuinness on October 4; Dana's statement about "allegations" of "an untrue, malicious and vile nature" on the 'Prime Time' debate, and most dramatically, the taking out of Mr Gallagher by Mr McGuinness on the final 'Frontline' debate.

All this drama left Mr Higgins to sail into the presidency, and he was elected by over one million votes on October 29.

The end of 2011 was dominated by the double Budget on December 5 and 6, and the euro crisis. By December 7 the Government had U-turned on cuts to disability payments and by the year's end, 15 opposition TDs were in open revolt over the €100 household tax.

Oh, and on December 4, Enda finally made a State of the Nation address. But most people have forgotten it already.

Irish Independent

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