IT started, like most leadership heaves, with an opinion poll. Last Friday week, bookmakers Paddy Power published the results of a poll it had commissioned Red C to carry out on its behalf. The results caused alarm across the entire Fianna Fáil organisation and particularly among its TDs. The party was at 14% nationally and just 10% in Dublin. If this was replicated in a general election the party would be doing well to win 20-plus seats. Fianna Fáil was sleepwalking to election meltdown and possibly even extinction.
For months now, there has been a solid rump of deputies – dubbed in the party as the "usual suspects" – who have been openly hostile to Brian Cowen's leadership. But with the cabinet and the "middle ground" backbenchers reluctant to move against the Taoiseach, it seemed certain that Cowen would lead the party into the general election.
However, this poll – and the subsequent revelation about previously undisclosed contacts between Cowen and public enemy number one Sean FitzPatrick – changed everything.
The middle ground began to shift and ministers, including those most loyal to Cowen, were acutely aware of it.
Micheál Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was left with a dilemma. Although already regarded as the frontrunner to succeed Cowen, Martin had little wish to move against him at this point – partly perhaps because loyalty to the party leader is so ingrained in the Fianna Fáil DNA but also because, for obvious reasons, Martin would prefer to take over as leader after the inevitable general election drubbing. There was even speculation that Cowen and Martin had an unofficial pact to this effect.
But the view within Fianna Fáil is that Martin was "spooked" by the poll results and by suggestions from some of the younger TDs that the next leader of Fianna Fáil should come from the so-called 'ógra generation'. There were also rumours that Mary O'Rourke and Conor Lenihan were making soundings on behalf of Brian Lenihan. Whether or not there is any truth to those rumours is almost beside the point – and no doubt O'Rourke and Conor Lenihan would deny there is – Martin was anxious not to be outmanoeuvred in the succession race.
He – and people on his behalf – began to sound out opinion early last weekend. "He was making calls in Munster in particular, making sure he had Munster [TDs] with him," one senior figure said. There was also a surprise development on the Saturday afternoon when fellow Cork TD Ned O'Keeffe issued a statement calling on Cowen to resign immediately as he had lost the confidence of the public. He claimed there was too much secrecy and too little transparency in the manner in which the government was conducting its business.
It is unlikely Martin or anyone else asked O'Keeffe to put out the statement as the Cork East deputy is very much his own man. But some TDs believe O'Keeffe may have been trying to help Martin, with one suggesting he could have been a "self-appointed stalking horse for Micheál Martin".
If the terrible 14% showing in Friday's opinion poll and, to a much lesser extent, O'Keeffe's statement on Saturday, were damaging to the Taoiseach, the revelations on Sunday morning about Cowen's contacts with Sean FitzPatrick only added to the TDs' sense of despair.
Not one of them – not even his bitterest critics within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party – believes Cowen did anything untoward in relation to decisions made on banking and Anglo Irish Bank. But the optics of the phone call and the golf game with FitzPatrick were terrible from Cowen's point of view.
TDs could see a general election campaign being dominated by Anglo and the motivation behind the bank bailout. "Fellows were saying, for Jaysus sake, what else is going to happen?" one deputy said.
As it seems were the Greens, who were quick to express their concern at the FitzPatrick revelations. On Monday afternoon, Green leader John Gormley and Brian Cowen spoke by telephone, during which Gormley made the point that these matters should have been put in the public domain much earlier. By this point, work had already begun on drafting a statement and Cowen told Gormley that it would be issued that night. That happened shortly after 9pm and Cowen refuted what he termed "malicious" and "unfounded" allegations about his contacts with FitzPatrick.
It is also known that Cowen met with Micheál Martin on that Monday night. No one but the two men knows what transpired at the meeting. The fall-out from the FitzPatrick revelations was certainly discussed though and there is a body of opinion that Martin made it clear that, while he didn't want to be leader until after the general election, he could not afford to be outmanoeuvred.
On the same night, tourism minister Mary Hanafin told the media the revelations had added "to the instability of the party". But she added that a change of leadership would not help. And with the Greens stating the following day that they could find no evidence of inappropriate behaviour in the Taoiseach's contacts with FitzPatrick, it seemed as if the heat might have been going out of the story.
But that didn't take account of the contacts that were going on behind the scenes within Fianna Fáil. The party's ministers met on Tuesday afternoon for their routine get-together prior to cabinet and it is understood it was a tense affair. According to one account, Hanafin made clear her displeasure at a number of recent issues, including the government's handling of the A&E crisis and VHI price rise, and made particular reference to health minister Mary Harney's absence during the period. By this point, the level of exasperation among senior ministers by the whole FitzPatrick affair was also crystal clear to Cowen.
This exasperation was very publicly reflected in the body language of cabinet ministers and government TDs during leaders' questions on Wednesday afternoon. And the mood darkened further when, under questioning from Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Cowen admitted that the dinner after the golf game with FitzPatrick in July 2008 was also attended by a second Anglo director, Gary McGann, along with former Anglo director Fintan Drury and Central Bank director Alan Gray.
This extra information, while hardly earth shattering, gave fresh legs to the story and raised further questions about Cowen's judgement. Why, Fianna Fáil deputies privately asked, had he not simply included that information in the statement he released on Monday night?
It didn't take long for rumours to start circulating in Leinster House about a potential move against Cowen. By 11pm, word was circulating that there had been a meeting of some Fianna Fáil TDs in Buswells Hotel – across the road from the Dáil. And the rumour mill had it that following that meeting, it had been agreed that two well-respected first-time deputies, Michael McGrath and Thomas Byrne, were going to tell Cowen at the following day's parliamentary party meeting that it was time for him to go. Both TDs have strongly denied any involvement and many dispute that any meeting even took place. But the speculation was strong enough that by midnight Brian Lenihan was, according to a senior Fianna Fáil figure, stating that he had nothing to do with the meeting.
Few, however, outside Fianna Fáil were aware of what was (or wasn't) happening, but by the next morning word had begun to filter through. And when the 11.30am meeting of the parliamentary party was postponed until 3pm, it opened, in the words of one deputy, "a volcano of speculation". TDs say they still don't know why the meeting was deferred – a scheduling problem was cited. The only minister with a 'scheduling problem' was Brian Lenihan, who was in Stormont for a meeting with his northern counterpart Sammy Wilson.
Behind the scenes much was happening. Cowen was holding a series of meetings with groups of ministers – including Batt O'Keeffe, Tony Killeen, Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern and Mary Hanafin. Nobody is likely to publicly reveal exactly what was being discussed. But it seems obvious that various options were being explored.
The meetings fuelled speculation around lunchtime that Cowen had been visited by the 'men in white coats', with senior cabinet ministers telling him the game was up, and that it was expected that he would make an announcement in the afternoon that he would resign as leader of Fianna Fáil but remain on as a 'caretaker Taoiseach' until the finance bill was passed.
In reality, it is unlikely that any cabinet minister told Cowen that he had to go, but the shift in mood of his deputies must have been made clear to him, and also that the situation wasn't looking good. There were reports that backbenchers received calls from ministers close to Cowen sussing them out and numbers were being crunched to see if the Taoiseach still had the necessary support among deputies.
The belief in many quarters of government and Fianna Fáil early on Thursday afternoon was that Cowen was preparing the ground to step down. The media went into a frenzy. Wild rumours swept around that there was going to be a press conference at 4pm which would confirm that Cowen was resigning as leader of Fianna Fáil. There were also suggestions that the Taoiseach was about to call a general election and that the president was on her way back to the Áras to be ready to meet with him.
But Cowen's resolve appears to have stiffened in the run-up to 3pm. It may have been a case of him thinking that if people wanted him to go, he wanted to hear it from them personally. It may also have been a bid to buy time – either to assess if a fight back was possible – or to give him space to go on his own terms rather than be known, as one TD put it, as the taoiseach who "resigned over a game of golf".
At the parliamentary meeting, Cowen sat at the front of the room alongside government chief whip John Curran, deputy chief whip John Cregan and the chairman of the parliamentary party, John Browne.
The beleaguered Taoiseach opened the meeting with a personal defence. But his usual customary barnstorming approach was missing and he looked jaded and "beaten".
Cowen pointed out that no other Fianna Fáil leader had ever had to endure the same levels of internal criticism and speculation about his position. He said that the mechanisms were in place for anybody who wants to challenge his leadership to seek 18 signatories to sign a "no confidence" motion.
Little concrete came out of Cowen's delivery. Text messages started arriving to the waiting media from TDs stating that Cowen was going to fight on. He offered to meet TDs in a consultation process "to address their concerns and to ascertain what's best in the interests of the party".
There was opposition expressed to Cowen but it was from the "usual suspects". Long time critic Sean Power let loose. Maverick TDs John McGuinness and Noel O'Flynn also spoke, while Tom Kitt effectively said the Taoiseach should move a confidence motion in himself. Bizarrely, these contributions were interspersed with other TDs getting up to speak about the climate change and finance bills. "At times, there were three simultaneous discussions. It was pure pantomime," one participant said.
But the offer of opening the consultation process over the next 24 to 48 hours had bought Cowen time, and no one senior was emerging to publicly challenge him. "Micheál Martin went for his usual Minister for Foreign Affairs-style approach of being indecisive, allowing others to do the work for him and not speaking up when he should have. Micheál effectively wants the leadership wrapped up in a bow and presented to him without him getting his hands dirty. Well, it is not going to be like that," one Cowen loyalist said.
The other potential successors, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan, also sat quietly throughout the meeting and did not utter a word about the leadership.
Cowen later appeared on RTÉ's Six-One news. He refused to be drawn on the chances of his resigning and said he would discuss the leadership with members of the party. He said he was the democratically elected leader but added that he would listen to the wishes of the party and assess them for himself.
Some deputies watching immediately came to the conclusion that the game was up and that in Fianna Fáil code, he was indicating that he simply wanted the space to go with dignity and of his own volition.
If Micheál Martin was surprised that Cowen had not stood down on Thursday afternoon – and the word is that the foreign affairs minister expected Cowen to do so – he masked it well. He welcomed the consultation process and diplomatically said: "It is important that members use this opportunity to have their say on the future of the party."
The consultation process took up most of Friday. As most of the TDs and senators had returned to their constituencies for the weekend the previous day, the majority of the conversations took place over the phone.
A number of ministers took to the public airwaves on Friday. Éamon Ó Cuív pointedly suggested that any minister who didn't have confidence in Cowen should resign from the cabinet. Ó Cuív also told Raidió na Gaeltachta that he would put his name forward in the event of a leadership contest.
Junior minister Conor Lenihan claimed there was "an appetite for change" in his constituency. In another pointed intervention, Mary Hanafin said the consultation process "should be quick" and it should be completed on Friday.
The party's monopoly on the media was interrupted by Eamon Gilmore's announcement that his party was tabling a motion of no confidence in the government – a move criticised by Fine Gael as "ill-advised and badly timed" and offering Fianna Fáil a chance to unite behind their leader. But by Friday evening, it appeared too late for that, with most Fianna Fáil figures privately of the view that Cowen would stand down as leader.
More than 40 members of the parliamentary party spoke to Cowen throughout Friday. Hanafin said she spoke to Cowen in the early evening over the phone and it was speculated afterwards by some Fianna Fáil TDs that she told him it would be best if he stepped down as party leader.
The Taoiseach remained in his office until after 8pm. One of the last people to speak to him was Brian Lenihan, who went to Cowen's office at around 7pm. The pair are said to have had what was described as "a routine discussion".
Cowen resumed his consultations with TDs and senators yesterday morning over the phone from Offaly. By yesterday afternoon, there was a slight shift in opinion about Cowen's intentions, with some predicting he may stay on.
While Cowen's loyalty to the party would mean that he wouldn't split it by contesting a no-confidence motion, there was a view that if no such challenge emerged, Cowen might opt to stay on. This extraordinary tale seems to have a few more twists and turns yet.
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