Neil Blaney (left) was one of the many Fianna Fáil figures that fell foul of the party during the 1970s and 1980s. PA Archive
FF Heave

A bluffer's guide to the Fianna Fáil heave

Some things you may have known, and some things you may not have, about how this works – and how it’s gone before.

TODAY SHOULD SEE the culmination of the battle for control of Fianna Fail with Taoiseach Brian Cowen tabling a motion of confidence in himself.

Simply speaking, Cowen will seek the support of a majority of the members of the Fianna Fáil present at this evening’s meeting. If Cowen gets his majority, he stays on; if he doesn’t, he steps down as party leader.

But what exactly is this majority – and has it worked before? Here’s our guide to things you might like to know – and a guide to how divisive Fianna Fáil’s various heaves have been in the past.

36 is the magic number

Although today’s crucial meeting is an assembly of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party – made up of the party’s TDs, Senators and MEPs – it’s only those who sit in the Dáil that get to vote on Cowen’s fate.

So while there could be a maximum of 97 people present at today’s meeting, it’s only the 71 men and women who sit in Leinster House’s biggest room that will get to cast a vote on Cowen’s leadership.

This means that the dynamic in the room may not necessarily be reflected in the outcome of the vote: there could be up to 24 Senators (and another three MEPs) in the room today with the ability – and right – to speak on the motion, it will only be the TDs who get the result.

However, we’re unlikely to find out – one way or the other – what exactly is said within the Fianna Fáíl meeting room on Kildare Street. What’s more, today’s vote is a secret ballot, so all we’ll know is whether Cowen wins or not. (And just because a TD says he or she will support the Taoiseach before he enters the room, the direction of their actual vote will be private to them behind closed doors).

It’s been a while since Fianna Fáil had one

Among Bertie Ahern’s many achievements as Fianna Fáil leader – being the only leader after Éamon de Valera to win three terms as Taoiseach, for example – is the fact that he seemed almost impervious to any internal heaves.

Before him, Albert Reynolds was forced out after allowing his coalition with Labour to collapse; Reynolds, in turn, had finally shoved Charles Haughey out in 1992, and Haughey in turn seemed almost always to be fighting off the opposition of George Colley and others.

It was during the Haughey era that the last major schism in Fianna Fáil took place. Before splitting from the party to form the Progressive Democrats, Dessie O’Malley challenged Haughey’s leadership in 1983, leading Charlie McCreevy to table a motion of no confidence at the parliamentary party.

The result of the vote was a heartening victory for Haughey, who prevailed by 55 votes to 22 – leading the opposing group to become forever known as the ‘Gang of 22′, who remained almost totally isolated within the party for the remainder of Haughey’s tenure.

Indeed, such was the frustration of the likes of O’Malley and Mary Harney that they quit the party and formed their own party in 1985. McCreevy very nearly joined them.

…but it’s not so long since Fine Gael did

While Brian Cowen has looked uneasy on his perch for some months, it’s been Fine Gael who have entertained more recent prospects of ousting its leader. Enda Kenny faced off a motion of no confidence himself in June, after his deputy leader Richard Bruton decided that the party would fare better under a new leader.

While we don’t know Enda Kenny’s ultimate margin of victory (party seniors wisely opted not to reveal the result of the party’s vote, instead deciding only to announce whether Kenny had won or not) the victory was telling, and resounding: seven months on, his ranks certainly seem more unified under him.

Not that Kenny is the only Fine Gael leader to have faced a heave, of course: his own predecessor, current finance spokesman Michael Noonan, came to power when the party feared that John Bruton would lead the party to a crushing defeat in the 2002 election. (As it transpired, they needn’t have bothered: Noonan lost 20 seats.)

Labour, too, have a history of it: In the late 1980s, after retaining his seat in a general election by just four votes, Dick Spring faced revolt from within his own divided ranks, but fought off any ultimate attempts to oust him.

There could still be a happy ending

Though it often seems that heaves mean war – and politics has certainly claimed its share of victims – it’s not impossible for the divided factions to play happy families afterwards.

The recent Fine Gael travails are an example of how, when a party has finally resorted to democracy to decide on its leader, it’s possible to reunite. Enda Kenny will, in all probability, become Taoiseach this spring, leading a coalition of over 100 TDs: a prospect that seemed unthinkable when his fate was voted on by his party colleagues in June.

Within Fianna Fáil, too, it’s been possible to keep the house in order. George Colley ran twice – and lost twice – for the leadership of Fianna Fáil; in both cases, the new leader kept their rival within the Cabinet.

Having been beaten by Jack Lynch in 1969, Colley stayed in cabinet, given a number of briefs before Fianna Fáil were deposed in 1973. When they got back to power in 1977, Colley even became Tánaiste – a role he kept when he was again beaten, this time by Charles Haughey, for the leadership in 1979.

Even Bertie Ahern – considered very much on the pro-Haughey faction of the party – gave cabinet positions to the most ardent anti-Haughey TDs. Charlie McCreevy, who nearly quit the party, became finance minister; others, like David Andrews and Seamus Brennan, were also given cabinet briefs.

The very fact that Brian Cowen has opted not to accept Micheál Martin’s resignation (at the time of writing, anyway) means it’s entirely possible that, should Cowen win the day tomorrow, Martin could continue to serve in the cabinet.

Overseas, heaves have ended in conviviality: Ted Kennedy, in 1980, launched a major campaign to defeat sitting President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. The tightly-fought campaign, in the eyes of many, was one of the reasons why Carter was beaten by Ronald Reagan in the presidential election that followed, but Kennedy remained a much-loved party figure.

More recently, Hillary Clinton raised almost $200m for her presidential campaign in 2008 – and, having been beaten, took a senior role in Barack Obama’s administration as Secretary of State.

In the UK, too, Tony Blair kept his opponents John Prescott and Margaret Beckett in his cabinet despite their candidacy against him when he ran for leadership of the Labour party in 1994.

Or, it could be war

There are, of course, plenty of other examples where the losing party in a leadership challenge has been unceremoniously dumped out of public life. A recent example – though the leadership was vacant beforehand – was in the UK, when David Miliband was so irked by his loss to his brother Ed that he quit the shadow Cabinet.

Before Miliband, of course, there was Gordon Brown, who became slowly more and more frustrated at Tony Blair’s refusal to step aside that Blair, ultimately, cut short his tenure simply to stop an outright revolt.

Though we cited Colley and Haughey as examples of opponents who served together, the Entente cordiale didn’t last forever. Colley was dumped as Tánaiste in 1982, and – when he was refused demands for a veto over certain appointments – was slowly demoted down the cabinet ranks.

And, of course, we mentioned that Haughey was so despised within Fianna Fáil that some people quit the party to create a new one.

In short, this week’s political movements will almost certainly result in blood being spilt – it’s up to Fianna Fáil itself to decide whether the wounds of the injured parties are worth healing.

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