Fianna Fail Leadership: And the contenders are...

The contest to succeed Bertie Ahern is under way in Fianna Fáil and although Brian Cowen is by far the leading contender, he is not alone and “events” could derail what seems an effortless succession. By Vincent Browne


Nobody in Fianna Fail is saying anything publicly about the leadership in crisis. Nobody in Fianna Fail is not talking privately about it, asking each other: what did he do with the money; how many more revelations at the Tribunal; how long more will he stay; is a Brian Cowen succession inevitable?

There is no question as of now of Bertie Ahern being forced from office but there is no question of that not happening if the Tribunal continues to disgorge more sensation. One senior Fianna Fail figure said Bertie will stay until after he addresses the US Congress on 30 April next. After that, the feeling is, who knows? In any event, since he himself said before the last election he would stand down as leader before the next election, speculation about the timing of his departure is an inevitability, quite apart from the Tribunal complications.

Brian Cowen (born 10 January, 1960):


Were Bertie Ahern to go at any time in the next year, it is a virtual certainty Brian Cowen would succeed him, possibly without opposition. He is the ablest in the Parliamentary Party, it was he who kept the show together in the early stages of the 2007 election campaign, when so much was in disarray for Fianna Fail, he has no skeletons.

Concern about him focuses on his tendency to be abrasive in public and on television. He is a skilled debater but he can be crass. He has the requisite experience, first elected to the Dáil in a by-election (caused by the death of his father, Bernard Cowen) in 1984, Minister for Labour (1992-93), Minister for Energy (1993) Minister for Transport, Energy & Communications (1993–1994), Minister for Health & Children (1997–2000) and Minister for Foreign Affairs (2000–2004), Minister for Finance (2004 to date). He is deputy leader of Fianna fail and Tánaiste since June 2007. While always in command of his briefs, he has brought no discernible independent agenda or perspective to any of his portfolios.

Micheál Martin (born 16 August 1960):


He is a more emollient figure. Has a Master of Arts in History and is a former secondary school teacher. First elected to the Dáil in 1989, Minister for Education & Science (1997-2000), Minister for Health (2000-2004), Minister for enterprise Trade and Employment (2004 to date). He was widely regarded as a success in Education, less so in Health but the record of his successor, Mary Harney, has caused a revision of his time there, his smoking ban has been his most lasting achievement in health. He has been largely anonymous in Enterprise, Trade and Employment. He would have the support of a significant number of Munster deputies in a leadership race.

Dermot Ahern (born 2 February 1955):


The most obviously ambitious of the potential candidates for the Fianna Fail leadership. A solicitor and a former windsurfing champion. First elected to the Dáil in 1987, he played a minor part in the initial stages of the peace process in meeting secretly with Sinn Fein, at the behest of Charles Haughey. Appointed a junior Minister in 1991 but lost that position when Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach in February 1992. Acted as a minor Inspector Clouseau for Bertie Ahern, when the latter asked him in 1997 to check out whether Ray Burke had received money from JSME in 1989. He is the only member of government and Fianna Fáil to call for a ban on corporate and trade union donations to political parties. Minister for Community, Social & Family Affairs (1997-2002) Minister for Communications, Marine & Natural Resources (2002-2004), and Minister for Foreign Affairs (2004 to date). In the latter role he has spoken of Irish foreign policy as exemplifying “active neutrality” but has consistently defended the use of Shannon by the CIA for rendition flights and the US forces in the continuance of the war in Iraq. He would have the support of some border TDs.

Noel Dempsey (born 6 January 1953):


Although perhaps the youngest looking of the contenders, he is in fact the oldest by six years! Another former teacher. First elected to the Dáil in 1987. He, along with Seán Power, Liam Fitzgerald and MJ Nolan tabled a motion of no confidence in the leadership of Charles Haughey in October 1991, the move which precipitated his resignation the following February and the election as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail of Albert Reynolds. Dempsey's initiative was rewarded by the new Taoiseach who appointed him government chief whip and, as such, he was integrally involved in attempting to resolve the crisis over Fr Brendan Smith that led to the collapse of the Fianna Fail-Labour government in November 1992.  Following the 1997 general election Dempsey was a key player in helping to negotiate a programme for government between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. He was Minister for the Environment and Local Government (1997–2002), Minister for Education & Science (2002–2004), Minister for Communications, Marine & Natural Resources (2004–2007), Minister for Transport & the Marine (2007 to date). He has been by far the most innovative Fianna Fail minister in recent times, taking initiatives on local government reform, party political financing, the environment, the dual mandate (TDs holding on to council seats), their level fees (he wanted to re-introduce them). However he has been maladroit in the implementation of some of the plans, and his public relations gaffes have weakened his chances of becoming leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach.

Mary Hanafin (born 1 June 1959):


The only woman contender. Affable, gracious but without the range of ministerial experience that would be thought necessary for the position of Taoiseach. First became involved in national politics aged twenty-one in 1980 when she was elected to the Fianna Fáil national executive. First elected to the Dáil in 1997 and therefore has no experience of opposition. In 2000 she was appointed Minister for State and government chief whip and in 2004 Minister for Education and Science. She has been an innovative Minister but has failed already to deliver on an 2007 election commitment on primary school class sizes and has got into a controversy on autism which she is losing.

Brian Lenihan (born 21 May 1959):


Son of the former Tánaiste and Presidential candidate, the late Brian Lenihan, nephew of Mary O'Rourke, a former minister and current TD, brother of Conor Lenihan, a junior Minister. First elected to the Dáil in 1996 in a by-election caused by the death of his father. A practicing barrister until he became  a junior minister. In 1997 he became chairman of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. In 2002 appointed Minister of State (with special responsibility for Children). He did not become a cabinet minister until 2007, when he was appointed Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. His easy command of the gigantic Justice brief has been impressive, as has the calm he has brought to the portfolio following the turbulent tenure of his predecessor, Michael McDowell. Although, like Mary Hanafin, he lacks a depth of ministerial experience, his assured performances on television on a variety of topics, his adroit handling of the crisis in 2006 over the release of sex offenders, his intellectual deftness, all make him a dark horse in a leadership contest, especially if Brian Cowen were to falter.