The end of Fianna Fail?

Stephen Collins (for the Irish Times)

The final session of the 30th Dail began today with further indignity being piled on the head of a dying Government as Taoiseach Brian Cowen came under pressure to explain his relationship with the former boss of Anglo Irish Bank Sean FitzPatrick.

The toxic Anglo Irish Bank has destroyed the reputation of Fianna Fail over the past two years and, more importantly, has almost bankrupted the country and left taxpayers with debts of tens of billions of euro.

The disclosure that FitzPatrick had an important phone conversation with Cowen at a crucial stage on the bank’s road to perdition and spent a day playing golf with the newly installed Taoiseach in the summer of 2008 has made a dire situation even worse for the Government, if that is possible.

Whether there was anything inappropriate in the contacts between the two men is almost irrelevant at this stage. What the disclosure has done is to cement the relationship between Fianna Fail and Anglo in the public mind on the eve of the election campaign.

What was already shaping up to be the worst result in Fianna Fail’s history could now become a rout on a scale that might even call into question the future existence of the party. The manner in which the party continues to shamble towards the election without direction and seemingly without hope is ominous.

The striking thing about Fianna Fail at this stage is the mood of fatalism that has gripped its TDs. The fact that a number of senior Ministers in their 50s have decided not even to contest the election tells its own story. The party which has known far better than any of its rivals how to win and hold on to power for the past 80 years seems to have thrown in the towel before the election campaign proper has even begun.

It is astonishing that no serious challenger has emerged to take on a leader who has not simply lost the confidence of the public, through a combination of bad luck and bad judgment, but has generated a level of antipathy rarely seen in politics.

If Fianna Fail had a chance of retaining power by changing the leader it would have happened by now. The fact that no serious moves have been made is an indication of just how bad things are. Morale within the Cabinet and the parliamentary party is now at an all-time low with the only question being how bad the election defeat is going to be.

The doomsday forecast of Cork East TD Ned O’Keeffe that Fianna Fail could be reduced to 12 seats is almost certainly an exaggeration but the fact that Fianna Fail was only getting the same level of support as Sinn Fein in a number of recent polls shows just how potentially bad the beating could be.

Fianna Fail’s Coalition partners the Greens have also been bewildered about what to do in response to the succession of hammer blows suffered by the Government. The latest revelations have presented them with a dilemma not unlike that faced by the Progressive Democrats at the start of the 2007 general election campaign.

At that stage Michael McDowell was persuaded that it was better to stay on rather than pull the plug on Bertie Ahern. The PDs suffered extinction as a consequence. This time around the Greens appear to be following the same route as the PDs, with the argument for hanging on to the bitter end prevailing over the political imperative of getting off the sinking ship as quickly as possible.

The Greens do have good reasons for prolonging the life of the Coalition just a little bit longer, in order to get cherished policies on issues such as climate change adopted, but the refusal to break the knot with Fianna Fail makes extinction in the election even more likely. There is still an element of wait and see about the Green position with the party saying that it has been unable to find any evidence of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ in the contacts between Cowen and FitzPatrick. The implication is that in the unlikely event that such evidence does emerge they may take a different attitude.

John Gormley said he would see how Cowen responded to Opposition questions in the Dail today but the Taoiseach is unlikely to come up with a different response to the one he has already provided to explain his contacts with FitzPatrick.

Gormley said yesterday it was regrettable that at every Green Party think-in a policy-driven party like his was forced to talk about other issues, such as ‘golfgate’, or ‘garglegate’, but that is just a foretaste of what he will have to talk about during the election campaign.

The Opposition parties took up today where they left off before Christmas hammering away at Cowen in the Dail. The FitzPatrick story has given Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein the ideal platform going into the final few weeks of the Dail and the election campaign to come.

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