As it stands, Brian Cowen literally stands on the brink of being illegal. His government, blighted by retirements and withdrawls, is down to the bare minimum the constitution requires: seven members, all of whom now have implausibly large workloads. Pat Carey for example, the one of the seven who looks most like Yul Brynner, is currently Minister for Transport, Gaeltacht and Community Affairs, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Eamon O’Cuiv also has three ministries, but such is his work ethic that he also applied for another one: leader of Fianna Fáil. Yes, because while Brian Cowen is still Taoiseach, he’s no longer leader of the party that following the Greens’ pull out is the only component of government. There is hopefully a dimension somewhere where all this makes sense.
As Irish political crises go, it’s the most baffling and volatile we’ve had in a long while. This one has inevitably been compared to all manner of past disasters, but as is often the case with Muppets, one of these things is not like the other.
The Arms Crisis, 1970
Time was when a host of ministers left the cabinet it was because some of them were accused of subversive and nefarious behaviour. Back in 1969 as The Troubles raged splits in the cabinet emerged: doves like Taoiseach Jack Lynch wanted cool heads to prevail, and hawks like Neil Blaney advocated busting into Northern Ireland like the A-Team to save the oppressed Catholic population, and to hell with the kaboom-inducing consequences. A committee involving three border county ministers and Finance Minister Charles Haughey secured funds to aid nationalists in the north. The problems arose when £50,000 was allegedly put aside to buy weapons using a Belgian former Nazi’s contacts on the continent in a vast conspiracy involving a renegade army officer and senior ministers of the state. Bad Bond film plot it might be, but the scandal had long-lasting effects. Legend in his own peninsula Blaney was expelled from the party and spent the rest of his career on the backbenches. Haughey remained tight lipped in the party’s doldrums for half a decade before being readmitted to shadow cabinet a la the prodigal son, and four years later used that fattened calf knife to cut Jack Lynch out of the picture.
The GUBU Era, 1982
Resignations and sackings weren’t the only thing Fianna Fáil did more enthusiastically in the olden days. Back in the eighties Fianna Fáil heaves weren’t the bloodless affairs they are now. People got hurt back then.
Following the second heave on Haughey’s leadership in 1982 (the first one was a bit of a phony war) dissenter Charlie McCreevy was jostled as he left the Dáil (and repeatedly told to GO BACK TO KILDARE! by a heckler while being interviewed on radio), while former minister Jim Gibbons took a heart attack a couple of weeks after being assaulted by a Haugheyite mob. 1982 is now referred to as “The year of GUBU” because of the grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented events of Charles Haughey’s nine month second term in power. That description was first used by Haughey himself in relation to double-murderer Malcolm McArthur staying at the house of the Attorney General. Retrospectively though the term came to embody the general calamity of his tenure, from promising expensive pet projects to independent backers of his minority government not long after telling the country was living beyond its means, tapping journalists’ phones, attempting to lean on the President improperly to refuse to dissolve parliament (and threaten the President’s aide de camp with career ruin) and generally being an eerily prescient version of Mr. Burns.
Coalition Switcheroo, 1994
Back in 1992 following their best ever election showing Labour made a terrible mistake of Gob Bluth proportions by going into coalition with Fianna Fáil, and by 1994 were staring to get panicky. Following posturing over the Beef Tribunal, the mishandled extradition of paedophile priest Brendan Smyth by then-Attorney General Harry Whelehan, who had just been appointed as President of the High Court, proved the last straw for Labour and they withdrew from office. Whelehan served for a day, and Albert Reynolds resigned under the expectation that Bertie Ahern would take over. But quite literally at the eleventh hour, a news story suggesting Ahern knew more about a previous case similar to Smyth’s than initially thought spooked Spring, who called off the deal and formed a coalition with Fine Gael and Democratic Left instead. In terms of sheer velocity of bemusing twists, it’s probably the one crisis that most closely resembles our current melee.
The events of the last few weeks may have slotted effortlessly into the Calamity Hall of Fame, but with an election coming presently, with a new Fianna Fáil leader and a Fine Gael leader who may as well be searching for Jimmy Hoffa for all he’s been visible of late, and a whole host of other characters who could trip up or have a Howard Dean moment at any minute, expect it to be matched.