Haughey: survived heaves

PRIOR to last week there had been 18 substantiated heaves against party leaders in the history of the state. And it was fascinating to observe how many features from those past coups were replicated last week in all the behind-the-scenes moves against Brian Cowen.

There were large similarities between last Thursday and the third leadership challenge to Charlie Haughey in February 1983, which occurred after it emerged that the phones of two leading political journalists had been tapped the previous year.

There was a media frenzy and wild rumours swept around Leinster House. It was even reported that Haughey was preparing his resignation speech. Sound familiar?

But while Cowen seems unlikely to survive as leader, Haughey somehow managed to back in 1983. The tragic death of Fianna Fáil TD Clem Coughlan – the uncle of current Tánaiste Mary Coughlan – in a car accident led to the party meeting at which the latest confidence motion was to be heard being postponed. This postponement bought Haughey precious time and he defied the odds to scrape through.

Eleven years later, Haughey's successor Albert Reynolds was shifted aside and again there are similarities with Cowen's current plight. The furore over the handling of the Fr Brendan Smyth issue brought down the Fianna Fáil and Labour government and Reynolds' many enemies in his own party moved against him. Phone calls were made and a confidence motion was being tentatively discussed before Reynolds honourably decided to announce his resignation.

While there was an enormous furore in the Dáil that extraordinary week in November 1994, a few months later few people could actually explain what it was that caused the government to collapse. In reality, the Fianna Fáil-Labour government was always destined to fall because of the deterioration in relations between the two leaders. The Fr Brendan Smyth affair was simply the catalyst.

Similarly, the revelations about Cowen's contacts with Seán FitzPatrick have proved a tipping point for Fianna Fáil TDs exasperated at Cowen's leadership.

Back in 1994, Cowen was devastated by the fall of his mentor Albert Reynolds. It would be ironic if the manner of their respective departures were to prove quite similar, as seems likely this weekend.

Leadership heaves are often prompted by bad opinion polls. It was a poll showing Labour ahead of Fine Gael last summer that led to the move against Enda Kenny and it was a succession of bad polls that did it for John Bruton in early 2001. This time around the pressure on Cowen really began to build with the Paddy Power/Red C poll nine days ago showing Fianna Fáil on just 14%.

Cowen's choice to have a series of meetings with TDs before making his decision also had echoes of the famous one-on-one meetings then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had with her cabinet in 1990 when they, particularly chancellor Kenneth Clarke, told her to her face it was time for her to go. Who, if anybody, will emerge in the Clarke role this weekend?