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Benign Brian is stirred but not shaken as rivals turn up the heat

Eamon Gilmore's visage was sporting the horrified expression of a maiden aunt who had just discovered 'Playboy' magazine tucked inside her copy of 'Knitting Weekly'. And it was the Taoiseach who was at the receiving end of this display of dismay.

"You want the opposition to solve the problem for you, you want the people of the country to pay for it and, meanwhile, you want to stay in office?" he asked.

Then Eamon's voice rose to a pitch usually only achieved by professional contraltos and junior minister Martin Mansergh: "Do you seriously expect us to agree to that?" he squeaked.

During Leaders' Questions yesterday afternoon it was clear that both Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore were experiencing the political equivalent of the Walk of Shame -- a particular perambulation familiar to anyone who has played footsie with someone utterly unsuitable and then found themselves wracked with chagrin the following morning.

Having rolled over and allowed their tummies to be tickled by the Taoiseach by agreeing to have consensual talks with him this week, both Kenny and Gilmore are now having second thoughts and spent yesterday's Dail session attempting to disentangle themselves from the embrace (or Vulcan death grip) of Fianna Fail and the Greens.

Oh, but Brian Cowen got the works flung at him across the Dail chamber -- insults, allegations, taunts and incivilities -- from a duo already deeply regretting their brief dalliance.

Enda Kenny's Walk of Shame brought him straight on to a patch of high moral ground. The dire news imparted by the Department of Finance mandarins to his own team of number crunchers had spelled the end of the fling as far as the Fine Gael leader was concerned.

"Not only was the economy being destroyed by the Government, but the Government was wilfully concealing the truth of the extent of that destruction from the Irish people in what amounts of a national catastrophe," he thundered.

"We're now in a position where a financial Everest faces the people for which they're being asked to pay and for which they're not responsible," he all but wailed.

Would Brian rise to the bait and respond with a flurry of recrimination and blame? After all, he usually does. But not this time -- instead the Dail chamber was treated to the unlikely sight of Benign Brian who kept his cool and attempted to pour oil on troubled Enda.

"I'm not going to reciprocate in the same way, deputy, I'm just not going to do so, though I would have good reason to do so," he replied mildly.

Goodness. Either the situation is even worse than we thought (thought it's hard to see how that's possible), or somebody slipped a happy pill into the Taoiseach's mug of tea.

Not to be out-emoted, Gilmore hurled some verbal crockery across the floor at Brian. He too was having a severe case of cold feet at the notion of cosying up to the Government over the issue of forging a consensus on a four-year budget plan.

"Where's your credibility?" he demanded. Eamon's economic team also had been allowed to stare into the abyssal black hole in the coffers of Ireland Inc, and the Labour leader knew that this was one story with no happy-ever-after ending.

"The briefings show that the figure of €7.5bn is way wide of the mark, that the figure now being discussed and considered is significantly higher than that," he said. "And that the worst is yet to come," he reckoned.

But still Benign Brian refused to put up his dukes and trade blows. "I don't want to say anything negative in respect of a discussion where we're supposed to be trying to build a consensus, and I understand that people have the opportunity at Leaders' Questions to go into a bit of a rhetorical flow," he crooned.

Of course he couldn't quite restrain himself entirely, and did take a minor potshot at Labour by suggesting that if the party's proposals for dealing with the near-collapse of the banking system two years ago had been followed, they "would've brought down that system, and hundreds of thousands of jobs would've been lost".

But it was a small relapse into old form. No matter how Eamon and Enda beat their fists against his chest, Brian didn't storm off in high dudgeon.

And now at 4pm today, the three non-amigos will sit down to get to know each other properly. It may be a speed-date and be over very quickly, or they may find they have stuff in common like, say, a desire to save the country's skin.

As long as nobody asks Enda and Eamon to lie back and think of Ireland, sure the job's oxo, isn't it?

Irish Independent