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Cowen's panto descends into a dreary anti-climax

HE told the press he had only come to his decision to step down as Fianna Fail leader late on Friday night in the company of his wife and family. But Brian Cowen's departure from his home in Ballard, Co Offaly, at the relatively late hour of 11.28am yesterday suggests that he had slept on it -- and for some considerable period of time.

Accompanied by members of the Special Detective Unit, his state car set out for Dublin, travelling at speed along the motorway. At times, the two cars appeared as little more than indistinct dark blobs on the horizon ahead of the Sunday Independent as they sped towards the Fianna Fail headquarters, where the party's chief whip John Curran, general secretary Sean Dorgan, and press chief Pat McPartland were already waiting.

It was a little over an hour after setting out from near Tullamore when the Taoiseach's mud-splattered Mercedes S350 and the detectives' Toyota Camry drove into the underground car park on Lower Mount Street.

By this time, government press secretary Eoghan O Neachtain and Mr Cowen's special advisor and speechwriter Brian Murphy were waiting to meet him, having come separately from Government Buildings to assist the man they have called "the Boss" since May 2008.

Typically for O Neachtain, he had played his cards -- and those of Mr Cowen -- close to his chest right up until the news was official. Asked earlier in the morning where the Taoiseach would be, he said simply: "Don't know yet."

But he knew alright.

The scene inside Fianna Fail headquarters, which was clearly visible through the windows from the laneway at the side of the building, was one of clear anxiety as the Taoiseach's closest advisors shuffled in and out of his office, carrying papers.

Meanwhile, Mr Cowen sat with Brian Murphy, putting the final touches to the speech he would deliver to the media at a hastily convened press conference less than an hour later, in the Wellesley Room at the Merrion Hotel.

At 1.09pm exactly, Mr Cowen's closest party and cabinet ally, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, arrived to offer her support. Dressed in the style to which fashion watchers are still only becoming accustomed, Ms Coughlan pointedly refused to make any comment on her leader's intentions, even though they were already crystal clear to the chattering classes across the capital and beyond.

At 2pm, the Taoiseach sat into his State car to make the short trip to the Merrion Hotel, where newspaper, TV and radio reporters, photographers and TV cameramen were already jockeying for position in the Wellesley Room.

Such was the level of tension that one political correspondent of impeccable manners and deportment caused consternation amongst his colleagues when he was heard to exclaim: "Feck off! I'm trying to do my job here!" in response to a cameraman whose view he was obscuring as Mr Cowen began his swansong at 2.05pm.

From that point on, however, it was precisely what many members of the press had suspected it would be -- something of an anti-climax.

As it dawned on those in the room that Mr Cowen was surrendering the leadership of Fianna Fail but intended to remain on as Taoiseach until the bitterest of ends on March 11, the nods, shrugs and raised eyebrows of the Fourth Estate said it all.

There followed a brief question and answer session, but nobody's heart was really in it, including the Taoiseach himself.

Within half-an-hour, Brian Cowen was being bundled back into his Mercedes which had pulled up minutes earlier outside the Merrion Hotel, in order to allow him a quick getaway.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan seemed not to have been given the full detail of the escape plan.

Standing at the kerbside on Upper Merrion Street as ordinary members of the public took pictures of her on their mobile phones, Ms Coughlan complained: "Where the fuck is my car?"

Standing next to our deputy prime minister, the Sunday Independent's reporter bit his lip and resisted the temptation to point out in pantomime fashion: "It's behind you!"

Sunday Independent