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For the party's good, Cowen must go

"It is a poor thing for anyone to fear that which is inevitable." Tertullian

Brian Cowen may have been pictured last week with Angela Merkel as if she was a pal, but that's not going to cut any ice with members of his party, transfixed, as they are, by the most recent opinion poll.

To put it bluntly, at 18 per cent, the backside has fallen out of Fianna Fail. Who would have believed that a party that managed to win power in three successive General Elections could sink so low in the polls?

Fianna Fail is on the floor, and in danger of becoming subterranean if action is not taken. Public confidence in the party is gone, completely.

Unfortunately for Brian, he is the public face of the party -- and so Brian, having been Minister for Finance during the "boom" years, carries the can for the "bang". His public image is not going to recover, no amount of stage-managed photo opportunities or state-of-the-nation speeches will change that. It's too late. In public opinion there is always a tipping point from which you cannot recover. Brian has reached that tipping point -- and Fianna Fail is toppling with him.

This isn't just a temporary little problem. Unless the party revolutionises itself, it could well slide into oblivion as its satisfaction ratings continue to plummet.

Brian has always been accused of being tribal, a party man, so he will understand better than most that the party is bigger than any one individual -- or, as Charles de Gaulle said, "The graveyards are full of indispensable men".

In this particular case, the party is bigger than one man, and certainly more important than one man, even if it's a man as devoted to Fianna Fail as Brian is. Here's the truth of it: in order for the party to survive, Brian must go, and go quickly.

However, the last thing Fianna Fail needs is a heave, or division within its ranks. There was enough of that in the Haughey era, when discord spread throughout the organisation from parliamentary party to cumann level. It took years for the rancour to be dispelled.

The party has enough to contend with, fending off attacks from the outside. It doesn't need to devour itself from within, the way Fine Gael periodically does.

Not even a miracle could fix the current situation. It would require multiple miracles. Brian, no matter what he does, cannot shake off the mantle of doom and despair that has cloaked Fianna Fail over the last two years. It's an impossible situation for him. Fairness and reason are not the issues here. Public confidence is the issue, and in the current financial crisis public confidence in the Government is imperative.

I don't doubt, for one minute, Brian's intellectual capability and commitment to the job. He still has an abundance of talent and knowledge to contribute to the party, an abundance of experience that could be invaluable in the reconstruction of the economy, and indeed the party, but unfortunately, the public just don't buy him as Taoiseach anymore.

If the party is to be given a fighting chance at the polls -- the real polls -- then he has to go.

Brian's departure is inevitable, but -- unlike the British Labour Party, which revamped the face of its leadership after the general election -- Fianna Fail doesn't have the luxury of waiting: action needs to be taken, and taken now.

The party members, in particular the grassroots membership, need some glimmer of hope and freshness to present to the public. You can't expect them to face the canvass trail promoting the very same people whom the electorate have rejected in opinion poll after opinion poll.

To take on the leadership of a political party in decline is a mammoth task.

The question is, who has the valour to take on such a role? Whoever takes it on would do so in the sure knowledge that their tenure as Taoiseach would be very short-lived, and that they faced, possibly, a long spell in opposition.

He or she would also know that the management of a party so used to being in power would not be easy. Taking on a cluster of massive problems takes courage. It would demand a confident, charismatic figure, an inspired energetic organiser, a real public servant, one with true commitment to democracy, to the party.

Is there such a person within the parliamentary party? If Fianna Fail is to survive as a major political player in the Dail, in or out of government, then it needs to find someone within the ranks who can step up to the plate.

It could be argued that a leadership contest before the Budget is not feasible, that it would destabilise the Government, possibly even bring it down. But, realistically, the opposition parties are doing all their posing, posturing, pontificating and pouting now, when the Budget is being formulated, because they know that the measures proposed in this Budget will be necessary, whether they like it or not.

Would they really bring the Government down, only to have to introduce the very same Budget themselves?

Let's face it, no matter who is in power, we are still going to have to suffer monstrous budgetary cuts in public spending and stinging increases in direct and indirect taxation.

At present, the Fianna Fail parliamentary party seems to have a defeatist, fatalistic attitude to the results of the next General Election. This is no time for self-commiseration. Bold action is required. They are not called the soldiers of destiny for nothing.

It's time the party showed some of that fighting spirit. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain in this regard -- and, being the strong party man that he is, Brian Cowen can lead the way.

Sunday Independent