Until Brian Cowen catches fire and runs through the Dáil leaving burning pews and flaming deputies in his wake, Thursday will go down as his worst day in politics ever. The Dáil was in chaos. Four ministers had resigned the previous evening. A fifth was due to resign. Promotions were on the cards. What was going on? Who was in the cabinet? Where was the Taoiseach?
"This would not have happened even in the days of great dictators!" said Enda Kenny surveying the quivering parliamentarians and with an inscrutable look in his eye when he said the words "great dictators".
"[A] cynical grubby exercise in last- minute jobbery!" said Eamon Gilmore, who secretly loves having a bit of cynical jobbery to rail about.
"Mutter, mutter, mutter," said the Fianna Fáil dissidents (a constituency that's growing by the minute) as they generally acted shiftily and congregated meaningfully where the journalists could see them.
"Mumble, mumble, mumble," said the Greens inaudibly, because they were holed up somewhere having an emergency meeting. The word on the street was that Cowen was planning one last stroke for old time's sake – an ingenious plan to parachute baby Fianna Fáilers into the newly vacated cabinet positions, thus impressing the plebs (that's us) come election time, with their ministerial cars and inflated self-worth. But rumour also was that the Greens weren't going to allow it.
On The One O'Clock News, with little else to go on, they had some montages about the outgoing ministers. It was clear from the old footage that Fianna Fáil politicians, when not in ministerial cars, sitting behind large mahogany desks, or talking to the president, spent a lot of their lives being carried shoulder-high by cheering men in suits (which explains a lot). It was also clear that Noel Dempsey could have been on Dallas with that hair.
During the Bryan Dobson-presented news special that followed, Cowen arrived and sulkily announced that instead of enacting his brilliant, it-can't-go-wrong scheme, he would be splitting ministerial responsibilities among the remaining ministers. The Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs then announced a date for the election – 11 March. This inspired the Labour front bench to stride towards the cameras at the front of Leinster House to announce they were now on an election footing. As they strolled towards us in an awkward, unnatural row, a weary nation hoped they would break into a spirit-lifting, finger-clicking dance routine, like one of the gangs in Westside Story. Sadly, they did not. And neither did Fine Gael (AKA The Jets) when they repeated the manoeuvre later.
Back in the studio, there wasn't much support for the Taoiseach. A ghostly apparition that looked a bit like Pat Carey materialised in front of Leinster House and seemed to whisper encouragement, but it may have just been shadows and the wind. Then Mary Hanafin, Cowen's Jesuitical leadership-rival, sadly informed us that she had advised the Taoiseach that the resigning ministers should see out the remains of the Dáil, and that she planned to continue having her cake and eating it by being critical of Cowen and retaining a ministry.
At six o'clock we got to see more file footage of outgoing ministers being carried about on people's shoulders like joyous babies. Then John Gormley was interviewed and seemed perplexed that the Taoiseach had ignored the Green Party's reservations. "We couldn't have been clearer," Gormley insisted. (To be fair, at this stage the Greens are so clear they're almost completely see-through.) "It's like they don't respect us," he might have added. Afterwards the Taoiseach arrived with one of his "fireside sulks". (Think of Roosevelt's 'fireside chats' with more scowling.) He impatiently rejected Dobson's suggestion that appointing new ministers was a "political stunt" by explaining how it was, in fact, a political stunt. ("It's about our self-respect as a party," he said, like we care.) Then he probably left the studio in the customary Fianna Fáil manner – carried shoulder high by laughing sycophants.
Later that evening, Conor Lenihan appeared on Tonight with Vincent Browne, where he spoke passionately about the terrible shape his party was in, expressed disappointment in his own brother, and even defended Dan Boyle from a hectoring Browne at the expense of his own leader. (Clearly Lenihan, Machiavellian genius that he is, saw which way the wind was blowing and was petitioning for membership of the ascendant Green Party.) Browne suggested that Lenihan's plain-speaking was actually self-interested guff. Lenihan jabbed his finger, raised his voice, narrowed his eyes and said, "Back off, Vincent. Back off!" Which is the most exciting thing he has ever done.
The next day, Lenihan, Micheál Martin and others were on telly edging towards a second leadership challenge. The Taoiseach didn't care. He was up in Northern Ireland promising to build them a free motorway for some reason. Eamon Gilmore had a cup of tea in a Galway café and insisted Labour was sticking to his bizarre motion of no confidence in the government. Eighties Fianna Fáil finance minister Ray MacSharry spontaneously manifested in the grounds of Leinster House, as he does in times of national crisis, decrying the Taoiseach:
"Leaders must always take into account what the standing is of themselves and the party in the country and take careful consideration and account of that." (Clarification: Ray MacSharry is not an apparition and made his comments after a Dáil event exploring political reform. "The thing about Ireland is nobody seems to take responsibility for anything," complained Dick Roche at the same event.)
Later that evening on The Late Late Show, a concerned panel spoke relative sense about reform, responsibility and the social contract, but that has no place in this article's exploration of the week's inanities, apart from Olivia O'Leary's comments on Cowen: "He never wanted to be leader of our country. Leader of Fianna Fáil was what it was all about. He has never stretched beyond that."
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