'How much are you down?" This is currently the predominant topic of conversation among the country's working population. They are receiving their first pay packets since last month's budget when their net pay was slashed.
Fianna Fáil TDs will be asking themselves a similar question this weekend after one of the most incredible weeks ever witnessed in Dáil Éireann – "How much are we going to be down?"
The party stood at an abysmal 14% in a Red C/Paddy Power opinion poll on 7 January. And after pressing the self-destruct button last week, TDs must be asking themselves how much lower they will be in the next poll and how many seats they are going to be down in a likely 11 March election drubbing?
If a week is a long time in the volatile political atmosphere in which we live, then the last seven days was certainly a long time in the life of a Fianna Fáil party that seems to lurch from one extraordinary crisis to another.
At 5.45pm last Tuesday, the party's TDs and senators made their way to the fourth floor of the five-storey office block, which is located in the Leinster House complex between Government Buildings and the National Museum.
The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party room that was the scene of numerous leadership challenges against Charlie Haughey in the 1980s was playing host to another confidence motion.
This time, it was Taoiseach Brian Cowen who had tabled the confidence motion – in his own leadership. Unlike Haughey, Cowen demanded the motion would be decided by a secret ballot.
The Taoiseach prevailed after a lengthy meeting that concluded shortly after 9pm with a rousing closing speech.
Cowen announced shortly afterwards that the win – believed to have been two-to-one in favour – left him "vindicated" and confirmed he was correct to stay on as leader.
The ballot papers from the vote were shredded after they were counted by tellers Rory O'Hanlon and Michael Moynihan and the details will never be disclosed.
As scores of journalists, photographers and cameramen waited for the result on the Leinster House plinth, the government chief whip John Curran appeared to officially declare that Cowen would remain on as leader.
As text messages and tweets had already been circulating about the Cowen victory for some minutes, the content of Curran's press conference was pretty predictable. When asked what the atmosphere was like in the Fianna Fáil party rooms, he delivered his trademark line that it was "business-like".
As Curran was talking, the tall figure of Micheál Martin could be seen waiting at the other end of the Leinster House plinth.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs walked up to the waiting media when Curran had finished and announced his resignation from the cabinet.
"F**k, I didn't think he would do that," remarked one shocked government adviser, who was in earshot of the media as Martin made his announcement.
Martin may have lost Tuesday night's battle, but he is still in with the best shot of winning the war due to the behaviour of the other two potential leadership contenders on Tuesday and Wednesday.
If Mary Hanafin's refusal to declare her voting intentions on Monday night's Frontline programme raised eyebrows, then her performance in the crunch Fianna Fáil meeting only drew derision. She stood up and delivered a weak speech in which she told party colleagues that she would "vote in accordance with what she had said to the Taoiseach in their private conversation about the leadership".
That comment probably represented a self-inflicted fatal blow to Hanafin's leadership ambitions. Comments from Fianna Fáil matriarch Mary O'Rourke on radio the following morning that Hanafin looked like a "prim aunt", spoke volumes about how – fairly or unfairly – Hanafin is perceived within Fianna Fáil.
If Hanafin dealt herself a hammer blow on Tuesday night at the meeting, then the other potential leadership contender, Brian Lenihan, pulled out a gun, pointed it as his foot and pulled the trigger during an interview with Sean O'Rourke on RTÉ's News at One on Tuesday.
He also managed to spray bullets in the direction of other Fianna Fáil colleagues in the process of a disastrous interview. In a pointed dig at Martin, he claimed that "he [Lenihan] couldn't afford the luxury of indulging his own leadership ambitions".
Lenihan declared his support for Cowen, claiming the Taoiseach was the best person to lead the party into the election despite "lapses in judgement", such as playing golf with former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick and his behaviour at the party's parliamentary party meeting in Galway last September.
The finance minister's support for Cowen quickly triggered fury among dissident Fianna Fáil TDs. Before the News at One was over, Kildare South TD Sean Power and maverick Carlow/Kilkenny TD John McGuinness had taken to the airwaves to express their surprise at Lenihan's smooth-talking stance on Cowen.
McGuinness claimed Lenihan encouraged dissent last year and asked rebel TDs to "look at the numbers" with a view to launching a no-confidence motion. In response to the claims from dissident TDs, Lenihan claimed: "I made it clear at all stages that I was very flattered at their interest in me being leader of the party", but he made it very clear that the depth of the financial crisis made it impossible to make a move.
Wherever the truth lies, the public debacle has damaged Lenihan's future leadership ambitions and left Martin as the clear front-runner for the role.
One senior party figure said: "Micheál Martin is definitely the next leader. Lenihan will recover but Micheál has come out of it incredibly well. He gave an incredibly passionate speech to the parliamentary party. We had never seen that before." On Wednesday morning in the Dáil chamber, Cowen gave one of his stronger performances since he took office in May 2008.
Buoyed up by the previous night's confidence motion victory, Cowen behaved like the man who was instrumental in pulling Fianna Fáil's disastrous 2007 election campaign out of the fire in the final days before polling day.
After Cowen garnered widespread laughter across party lines with his jibes at Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, there was a palpable sense among Fianna Fáil TDs that they had made the right decision in keeping Cowen in situ.
A senior party figure said: "Wednesday morning was great. People who a day later would be frothing at the mouth [about the botched reshuffle] were saying 'this is great, the old Brian Cowen is back'. It didn't play well with the wider public but it did with the party base."
The man who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for Fianna Fáil in 2007 would later manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory over the following 24 chaotic hours.
After leaving the Dáil chamber on Wednesday morning with a broad smile on his face, Cowen headed for a meeting between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
Accompanied by Curran and defence minister Tony Killeen, he met with Green ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan and senator Dan Boyle. It was supposed to be a routine meeting to discuss upcoming government business, including the climate change bill, but it ended up being arguably the most contentious get-together of senior figures from the two parties in the coalition's tenure.
Both sides have completely conflicting accounts of what transpired.
The Fianna Fáil line is that the Taoiseach took the opportunity to brief the Green Party on the resignation of Micheál Martin and the desire of a number of other ministers to resign from cabinet. He explained the Fianna Fáil view that the party should enter the election with a cabinet made up of TDs who would be seeking re-election and that he would be moving to appoint new ministers without further delay.
Not only, Fianna Fáil claims, did the Greens not suggest they would oppose such an initiative but there was even a discussion about the right of party leaders with a coalition to unilaterally replace personnel within their team.
Party sources also claim Cowen moved to assuage Green concerns that the reshuffle might be used to prolong the life of the government and that there might be a negative public perception of the reshuffle.
The Greens' position is completely different. They say they clearly stated that the move would send out another wrong signal to the Irish people and that Eamon Ryan, in particular, argued against replacing ministers at this late stage. And the Greens further argue that Gormley had told the Taoiseach the previous Sunday during a conversation that he did not think fresh cabinet appointments was a good idea.
The two sides went their separate ways after Wednesday's meeting. Tony Killeen went straight back to his office to write his letter of resignation, handing it to the Taoiseach in the minister's corridor of Government Buildings a short time later.
On that evening's Six-One News, Gormley was interviewed and said his party would need to be consulted before any changes were made. While he said the Greens would have concerns, he suggested the party might not object to one or two new appointments. After that interview, Gormley bumped into Mary Harney on the ministerial corridor. The two chatted but Harney did not mention her pending resignation announcement. Gormley then took a call from Dermot Ahern, who was recuperating in hospital from a routine hip operation. The justice minister wasn't impressed with Gormley's comment on RTÉ that there might be a case for Ahern to step down given that he was in hospital. Ahern told Gormley he was perfectly capable of carrying out his ministerial duties.
That suggests that at this point, the ministerial resignations had not taken place. There would still have been time for Cowen to backtrack on the plan. Whatever had transpired at the earlier meeting, Gormley's comments to RTÉ should have set alarm bells ringing in Government Buildings, Fianna Fáil deputies say. Those same deputies were completely in the dark about what was going on. A number of them got wind at around 8.30pm that Mary Harney was about to announce her resignation but there was no mention at that point that Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen would also be exiting the cabinet – which by this point had already been agreed.
As it turns out, the issue of ministerial resignations had been broached by Cowen the previous week. It is understood a number of ministers, while stressing it was the prerogative of the Taoiseach to make changes to his cabinet, strongly suggested to him that this would be badly received by the public. The potential reshuffle got overtaken by events at that point as attention instead turned to Cowen's own position as leader of Fianna Fáil. But Cowen clearly kept it under consideration. The issue of retiring ministers continuing on in office was raised with Cowen by backbenchers and this may have been a factor in his decision to return to the reshuffle idea.
There have been suggestions that the move may have accelerated because of Mary Harney's eagerness to make a clean break but other senior figures have serious doubts about this. It is understood Harney may have expressed the view that any appointment of new ministers would be badly received and that while it was obviously Cowen's call to make, it might be better to leave retiring ministers in situ. It is believed other ministers also expressed this view to the Taoiseach, questioning how the move would be perceived publicly and whether the Greens would wear it.
However, Cowen was determined to press ahead. The question as to who was advising him at this point has been a talking point among Fianna Fáil deputies. Nobody knows the answer. Those who know Cowen say he has an old-fashioned pecking order whereby he values the advice of elected politicians above those of advisers and strategists. Some believe that Tony Killeen and John Curran – who are very close to the Taoiseach – were key players but Cowen is known to trust his own counsel above all else.
And, it seems, he keeps his cards close to his chest. The first Gormley heard of Harney's resignation was from his wife, who saw it on the Nine O'Clock News. Two hours later, Fianna Fáil deputies heard that the three other ministers – Killeen, Ahern and Dempsey – had resigned. The Department of An Taoiseach put out a press statement to that effect via email at 10.58pm.
"The alarm bells started ringing. There was a bit of chit chat about who would get what but there was also serious unease. We are talking about jobs when there are 460,000 unemployed. You could maybe justify Mary Harney and Micheál Martin but to have five, and for Batt to throw his iron into the fire. Whoever was involved in this… did the lads get thick with John Gormley and just say 'f**k him, we are tired of his double dealing'. It would be typical Gormley. He decides one thing and does another because Dan Boyle and Paul Gogarty say so, but the red light should have gone when Gormley gave his Six-One interview," said a senior Fianna Fáil source.
But the red light was not flashing in Cowen's mind, at least not until shortly after midnight, when he reportedly rang children's minister Barry Andrews and offered him the health portfolio. Instead of being delighted, Andrews declined and expressed a preference for finishing his work on the children's referendum.
At 6.30am on Thursday morning, deputy government press secretary John Downing sent a text message to his boss John Gormley about the resignations of Killeen, Ahern and Dempsey.
The contents of the text were confirmed to Gormley when he heard the 7am news on RTÉ's Morning Ireland. Later in the same programme, Paul Gogarty expressed his anger at events. Fianna Fáil's Ned O'Keeffe warned on the same programme that the move would be seen as cynical.
An editorial in the Irish Times, the daily newspaper of choice for Green TDs, spoke of "deckchairs on the Titanic" and called for an earlier election. Some government figures believe this further spooked the Greens.
The junior coalition partner hastily organised a parliamentary party meeting for 9.30am. Within minutes, Gogarty had tweeted: "Expect collective decision soon. Then it's up to Taoiseach to see sense or go."
Shortly before 10am, Leinster House was rife with speculation that enterprise minister Batt O'Keeffe was about to resign as well. The events that followed in the Dáil chamber at 10.30am were downright farcical.
As opposition TDs vented their anger at Cowen's absence from the chamber, they kept asking for the House to be suspended until he came in to explain if he had a cabinet or not.
Tánaiste Mary Coughlan clearly had no credible response and the Dáil threatened to descend into anarchy when an under-pressure Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk pleaded: "The Chair is not empowered to suspend the House except when there is gross disorder in the House..." Cue gross disorder and the House suspended twice – the second time until 1.30pm.
"We had no credible story that morning. The Ceann Comhairle should have been briefed and told to adjourn. Instead, we had pure farce until 11.30am and by then the damage was done," one Fianna Fáil deputy said.
The despair of party TDs was acutely apparent. One of the highly regarded members of the 'Ógra generation' walked out of the chamber and said aloud to nobody in particular, "For f**k's sake".
The Green TDs and senators were still in conclave, with senior figures going over and back to the Taoiseach's meeting room for discussions with Cowen, Brian Lenihan and other senior ministers.
At this stage, no one disputes that the Greens insisted they would not support the reshuffle. Cowen had no option but to back down. Not only did he have to reassign the portfolios to his remaining ministers but he was effectively forced to set the 11 March date for the election.
At 1.30pm, Cowen went into a Dáil chamber that was noticeably absent of any Green TDs to make the announcement. He finished with a parting kick at the Greens, stating that it was his understanding that it was the prerogative of each party leader in a coalition to make their own ministerial appointments and slumped angrily back into his chair, arms folded.
As journalists filed out of the press gallery, they witnessed the extraordinary sight of a near mutinous group of Fianna Fáil deputies – including Micheál Martin, Brian Lenihan, Maire Hoctor, Beverley Flynn, Conor Lenihan and Michael Kennedy – angrily discussing what had happened.
They made no attempt to hide their displeasure from the watching media and openly used phrases such as "fiasco", "shambles" and "I told him not to do this".
Attention quickly turned once again to Cowen's leadership and over the next 24 hours a number of TDs, including Conor Lenihan, Michael Kennedy, Michael McGrath, Noel O'Flynn, Thomas Byrne and Mary O'Rourke, publicly criticised the Taoiseach.
In private, many of those who had backed him just two days earlier were stating that he had to go. Party grandee Ray MacSharry pointedly said that a leader had responsibilities to the party.
Leader-in-waiting Micheál Martin called on TDs to reflect on the leadership over the coming days. But with TDs more worried about holding onto their seats than getting distracted by another heave, their hope was that Brian Cowen would be doing the reflecting this weekend.
"People will have to go to him. He'll have to be told to go," one senior TD who backed him in the confidence motion said this weekend. "I don't think it will come to a heave but if a heave was to start, it wouldn't take a lot to succeed. He's nobody left to fight for him."
Although initially Cowen insisted he would be staying on as leader, by Saturday morning it was increasingly obvious he was running out of road. Middle ground had been contacting the circle around him urging him to go and it was clear that even his closest allies believed that Cowen had to go. Yesterday afternoon, he did.
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