In a controversial move, Taoiseach Micheál Martin sacked his Minister for Agriculture, Barry Cowen earlier this week. Martin announced on 14 July that Cowen was to be relieved of his duty, with Dara Calleary named as his replacement the following morning.
This turn of events came to pass as a result of a drink-driving offence committed by Cowen while on a provisional licence when travelling back to Offaly from the 2016 All-Ireland football final. Cowen had not informed the Taoiseach of this incident prior to his appointment as a cabinet minister. Martin became aware of Cowen’s transgression a few hours prior to its publication in the Irish Independent on 4 July. Cowen issued a number of apologies over the following days, as word of further traffic infractions that appear to have been wiped from Garda records emerged. Martin accepted Cowen’s apologies, while the Laois-Offaly TD appeared in the Dáil to settle the cause célèbre for good on 7 July.
The controversy seemed to abate in the following days. However, on Sunday 12 July, allegations of Cowen doing a U-turn before a Garda checkpoint emerged. Cowen staunchly denied the allegations, insisting that the report is “incorrect” and the leaking of his personal information by An Garda Síochána involved a criminal act. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) is currently investigating the leak. Further headaches emerged for Cowen and Fianna Fáil when it became clear that information surrounding his alleged evasion was discovered by the party nine days prior to its publication in the media.
Cowen’s fate was sealed over the following two days. On13 July, Cowen refused to make any further comments until Gsoc issued its report, a decision based on legal advice. Still, calls for Cowen’s resignation were not plentiful. Varadkar said that waiting for Gsoc’s report was an acceptable line of action, while the Green Party’s deputy leader, Catherine Martin, and Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly only called for further clarification in the Dáil. Cowen and Martin then met to discuss the Garda Pulse report. After a further meeting the following day, differences in both men’s attitudes became clear. Cowen, steadfastly following legal advice, refused to address the issue any further in the Dáil, contrary to Martin’s wishes. The Taoiseach believed that the Pulse report read more favourably than the media’s portrayal and would help Cowen weather the political storm. Despite the Offaly TD’s refusal, Martin’s subsequent defence of Cowen in the Dáil, in response to pressure from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, seemed to solidify the government’s decision to defend Cowen. But Martin proceeded to sack Cowen shortly afterward, saying that the distractions stemming from the controversy were “untenable”. The Taoiseach’s sacking of Cowen a few hours after his appearance in the Dáil was a surprise, according to members of government from all parties. The defence he issued only a few hours earlier has led many to believe that Martin was giving the Offaly man a chance to deviate from his policy of silence. The Taoiseach likely had his decision to sack Cowen made before he spoke in his defence. Cowen released a statement highlighting his frustration and disappointment at Martin’s decision.
Barry Cowen’s rapid descent has capped off a turbulent first few weeks for Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil. His sacking has also created fractures and practical issues for the new government.
Within Fianna Fáil, Martin has offended many and pleased few. The Taoiseach’s decision was not pushed for by Fine Gael or the Greens, and so has not created a rift between the parties. Cowen’s dismissal was Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil’s decision. The sacking of Cowen has disillusioned Fianna Fáil in Offaly. The Cowens are a staunch Fianna Fáil family, with Brian, Barry’s older brother, being a former Taoiseach. All eight of Offaly’s Fianna Fáil councillors have come out in support of the former minister.
More broadly within the party Cowen has received support from TDs who are not well disposed towards Micheál Martin. Prominent Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South, Jim O’Callaghan, refused a junior ministry during the government formation, and has publicly spoken about rebuilding the party from the backbenches. This is viewed as a potential future challenge to Micheál Martin and is backed by notable Fianna Fáil TDs like Éamon Ó Cuív and John McGuinness, who feel that Fianna Fáil has done itself harm by going into government with Fine Gael. Cowen has been pictured with the latter two deputies since his dismissal and is expected to join O’Callaghan in his renaissance project.
Also, replacing Cowen with Fianna Fáil’s deputy leader Dara Calleary, who was not given a full ministerial role during the government’s formation, is unlikely to win Martin back the support Calleary’s snub lost him after the government’s formation. Many saw his treatment of the Mayo TD as a slap in the face and will view Calleary’s appointment merely as an attempt by Martin to repair the harm done to his leadership by the slight. However, Calleary’s new role as agriculture minister has mended the government’s lack of a senior minister from the West, which could help Martin and Fianna Fáil win back some rural support.
The political difficulties caused by Cowen’s dismissal has also created several practical difficulties. The upheaval has led to two changes in cabinet aside from Calleary’s appointment as Minister for Agriculture. Jack Chambers, of Dublin North-West, has replaced Calleary as Government Chief Whip, and will have a seat at the cabinet table. Seán Fleming, a TD for Laois-Offaly, will fill Chambers’ old position as Minister of State for Finance responsible for Financial Services, Credit Unions and Insurance. Each deputy and their staff must acquaint themselves with their new portfolios and departments almost a month after the government’s initial formation. All meetings and relationships with stakeholders and European officials will start from square one, which reflects poorly on the new government, both domestically and abroad. As well as this, departmental progress on portfolios relevant to these ministers will be impeded. None of these prospects bode well for Micheál Martin and a government preparing itself for the possibility of a WTO-style Brexit deal, changes to the Common Agricultural Policy and the effects of an economic recession resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.