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Lise Hand: Parties wrestle in smouldering ruin as salvage operation begins

WHAT a bitter end for Brian Cowen. It was his insistence on exercising his (perfectly legal, but politically inadvisable) Taoiseach's prerogative to reshuffle his Cabinet that hastened the inglorious end of his Government.

And now he is effectively deprived of his final, momentous decision as Taoiseach -- to select the date of the general election.

Oh he will get to actually name the date as is his prerogative, but the date has been fixed by others. Or to be precise, he gets to name it again, as he announced in the Dail last Traumatic Thursday that it would be held on March 11.

Not any more. For the Greens are gone and the Taoiseach now leads a minority Fianna Fail Government and Brian doesn't get to call the shots in the confusion-filled, dying days of this administration.

Yesterday in the aftermath of the prolonged meltdown of the 30th Dail, a sort of calm descended on the environs of Leinster House. Deputies were on the canvass in their constituencies around the country, and the quartet of nominees to succeed Brian Cowen as party leader -- the four horsemen and woman of the Fianna Fail apocalypse -- were all furiously working the phones to woo undecided party members in advance of Wednesday's ballot.

But the main action of the day was unfolding in Brian Lenihan's office on Merrion Street where the finance spokespersons of all the parties convened at 4pm to try and figure out how to extract some sort of order from the smoking rubble left after the collapse of the coalition.

And so some of the battered political figures who staggered out of the smouldering ruin began to try and untangle the unholy mess. This was a task akin to a one-armed man juggling a dozen red-hot knives, given that there was the small matter of a Finance Bill to pass (or not to pass), and a forthcoming motion of confidence in the Government to deal with.

But finally after protests, foot-dragging and shape-throwing from various parties, the get-together was set for the Department of Finance to nail down the funeral arrangements for this Dail.

Of course, this being Irish politics, the course of true bipartisanship never runs smooth, and at around 5.30pm the Sinn Fein deputation stalked out of the department, led by the party's newest Angry Young Man, Pearse Doherty.

The lanky Donegal man may only be in the Dail a wet weekend but he's already perfected a polished line in outrage. "The Minister for Finance asked me and my team to leave the meeting," he barked. It seemed that Brian took exception to being barracked on his rights by the whippersnapper on his own turf.

Pearse happily threw all his toys out of the cot for the benefit of the media. The whole consensus lark was "disgusting" and a "grubby deal", he opined before excoriating the Labour Party for being part of the whole business in another pot-shot in what's destined to be a dirty war between the two parties.

And then, after 6pm, one by one the others filtered out to proclaim there was white smoke over Leinster House and that the Finance Bill would be home and hosed by Saturday at the latest.

But what of the election date? First out was Eamon Ryan who was circumspect about details. The new polling day was "a matter for the Taoiseach", he explained decorously.

Nor would Brian Lenihan be drawn on it. "It's the Taoiseach's prerogative," he insisted.

Michael Noonan wouldn't confirm that February 25 was the new election date either, but was open to a bit of speculation as to when it might be called. "We've no confirmation of that," he said. But he reckoned that the Taoiseach "may want to go into the Dail on Tuesday morning and have a valedictory speech".

But Joan Burton had no such qualms about trampling on protocol. "It's extremely likely now that the date of the next general election will be February 25," she declared airily.

And so there appears to be a chink of certainty among the continuing commotion. The election looks set to be called some time before next Tuesday afternoon when Labour's motion of no confidence in the Government is due to be held.

And another certainty is that the Government would lose. So it's likely that at some stage before then Brian Cowen will make the lonely journey to the Park, having called the election for Friday, February 25.

But Labour's taking no chances where Fianna Fail is concerned, and Eamon Gilmore is leaving the motion in place. "We want to make sure there'll be no slip-ups, no funny business," he warned, fearful of one final stroke.

Thanks to recent events we've all learned the hard way that it ain't over till it's over.

Irish Independent