Unvarnished – that’s the word that characterises Brian Cowen. There’s a rumpled, shovelled-into-his-suit look about An Taoiseach that’s refreshing in this media age when image is, if not everything, then 80% of what counts with voters. Maybe that’s a big reason for Cowen’s standing as a hate figure in the south these days – he’s refused to have himself air-brushed and tittivated to a point where he’s a smooth media product.
Cowen was at his best on Saturday evening - no ingratiating smile, no prefabricated statements as he told the waiting media that no, he wouldn’t be quitting as leader. Throughout the press conference he gave the impression of a man voicing what he really believes, listening when others spoke, responding honestly to what they had to say. He’s either sincere or a consummate actor.
The man who wants his job and who’s finally come out and said so, Micheál Martin, is different. In manner he resembles another Corkman, Jack Lynch. Both are mild-mannered, quiet-spoken, without rancour - or apparently so. But behind the mask of mild manners, the impression you get is of watchfulness, sizing up the opposition, plotting the next move. Not that the next move will necessarily be successful – Lynch’s performance in terms of the North was pathetic; but you can almost hear the wheels turning, clicking, processing.
Will Martin emerge as a winnner after the vote of confidence in Brian Cowen, called for tomorrow? No and yes is the answer. Cowen will in all probability get an endorsement from the majority of his parliamentary party, so no, Martin will not win in his bid to become leader of Fianna Fáil. Not right then; but he may well win in a couple of months time. That’s when Brian Cowen will have led Fianna Fáil into the general election in the south where the party will take an unmerciful hammering. Surveying the wreckage, Martin will be able to shake his head sadly and murmur ‘I told you so’. He’ll also be seen as the only rival with the cojones to come out against Cowen. That, added to his more general popularity among wide swathes of Fianna Fáil, should be enough to see him made leader. They’ll be in opposition but Martin will be in charge, the rumpled one dispatched to the back benches - assuming he's held his seat. Short-term Martin loss tomorrow, long-term Martin gain in a couple of months’ time.
But leader of what? After the election Fianna Fáil will almost certainly be in the A & E department, maybe on life-support. Will Martin’s mild bedside manner be enought nurse the party back to health?