Some of the political correspondents writing over the last week are reading a great deal into every government minister’s’ utterance. Micheál Martin made an extremely banal comment when asked on Newstalk about the Cowen incident;
“I think we all have to reflect in terms of how the conference was organised, in terms of communications issues and so on like that. Clearly we have lessons to learn and we will work on that particular agenda in terms of future events and future communications strategies.”
This was then characterised as a ‘stern rebuke’ and that he was ‘piling the pressure’ on Cowen. Taking it completely out of context, even the use of the word reflect was interpreted as code for a resignation call. Similar misreadings were made of other ministers’ comments.
Now journalists are looking to the expected opinion polls to decide Cowen’s fate. It’s predicted that Fianna Fáil TDs will reflect on those poll results before deciding what to do. But what do they expect? I suspect FF TDs are sensible enough to know that the polls will hardly be good. They were already bad and are most unlikely to improve, and unless there’s a complete collapse in FF support most likely nothing will happen. If FF TDs were not scared into replacing him by the results of the local elections, why would they be moved by an opinion poll?
There are other factors that FF TDs will need to take into account. 1. Taoisigh tend not to give up their job too easily and so you’d expect a fight. FF leaders have some incumbency advantages – it’s not that easy to get rid of them. Does Fianna Fáil want to risk a Fine Gael-style failed coup? 2. Who would replace Cowen? If Lenihan is unwilling to take on the job, none of the other candidates might inspire confidence. Would backbench TDs prefer anyone other than Cowen? More likely they have an opinion, but the list of would be successors is lengthening which also increases the uncertainty of who might replace Cowen (if anyone). 3. Would it make any difference? Are people disappointed with the government because of Cowen or because of the state of the economy? A new leader might get a small boost/ honeymoon, and may be a better communicator, but the underlying problems won’t go away that easily. 4. Would there be an immediate election? Many people say that they could not have a replacement without an election, because you’d have two taoisigh without any mandate. I’m unclear why this is an issue – there certainly isn’t a legal impediment. But sometimes when something is said enough times by enough people it becomes self-fulfilling. In any case a new Taoiseach may want to avoid being blamed for the almost inevitably poor FF performance and so might call an immediate election, thus securing his/ her leadership of the party after that election. But this mightn’t suit those FF backbenchers who would lose their seats. Poor opinion polls results don’t usually cause you to rush headlong to an election; why would they do so in this case?
Eoin O’Malley (20 September 2010)