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Quitting probably his best decision

WELL, who would have believed it? Brian Cowen's resignation as leader of Fianna Fail is probably the most politically astute decision he has made since taking office in 2008. His tenure has been dogged by bad judgement, bad timing and bad management.

Unfortunately, despite the grace of his departure speech yesterday, that is likely to be his abiding legacy. The fact is that being Taoiseach and leader of a political party requires the essential ability that Cowen never had; the ability to multi-task. You need to be able to manage the Government, manage your department, organise your party and represent your constituents. Whatever his intentions -- and I have no doubt they were good -- Cowen was unable to manage all the strands his job demanded. He allowed his Government to disintegrate because he failed to listen. He failed to listen to John Gormley, who was categoric in his objection to an extensive cabinet reshuffle. This was inescapably obvious to me watching the Six One news on Wednesday. How Cowen could have imagined, in the light of that clear opposition, that he would get Green support for the appointment of a substantial number of new ministers is baffling.

And it was clear that he failed to manage the party from Micheal Martin's accusations that Cowen had allowed Fianna Fail get into the position where it would face election day on March 11 without all its candidates selected and minus an election plan or strategy.

Here's a fellow who won a confidence motion in his parliamentary party, mostly due to the support of the old guard, and what did he do? He sought the resignations of the very people who supported him so he could pull what looked like the cheap political stroke of appointing new members to Cabinet.

He left the parliamentary party reeling. Less then seven weeks out from an election, Fianna Fail now has only seven ministers to look after 13 government departments and the party faces the unenviable task of selecting a leader to head up its campaign. He was deaf to the fears and complaints of the electorate since he took office. It was only a matter of time before he imploded. Lamentably, he has quite possibly taken the country and his party down with him.

As far as I can see, the only senior member of Fianna Fail with any backbone or political judgment is Micheal Martin. Having gathered himself following the most awful personal tragedy, he recognised the appalling situation Fianna Fail was in.

Unlike others, Martin was not afraid to put his money where his mouth was. Not for him whispers behind closed doors.

Not for him political assassination by a thousand cuts in the hope that Cowen would jump before he was pushed.

He stood up and was counted and he managed to do it in a most dignified and courteous way -- which was in stark contrast to the duplicity and cowardice shown by some wannabe leaders.

The backbenchers' shock at Brian Lenihan's protestation of satisfaction with Cowen's leadership is well documented. Having lost the political advantage in the leadership race he chose to stay with Cowen rather than support Martin. Not exactly the actions of a man with the best interest of the country or party in mind. There was a time when Lenihan was hot favourite to succeed Cowen. It will be interesting to see how his party colleagues view him now.

And then we had Mary Hanafin, who was afraid to open her mouth. Talk about hedging her bets. First she made noises of dissatisfaction with Cowen, and then she refused to commit herself, claiming she would declare her position within the parliamentary party meeting. From what I could gather, Ms Hanafin was less then forthright there too.

To cap it all, she accepted a second ministerial post from a Taoiseach she claimed to have no confidence in. She was always going to have an uphill battle to retain her seat in Dun Laoghaire. Her reticent and slippery approach to the leadership debate and her determination to stay in office regardless of the cost to her integrity may just have made that battle all the more difficult.

Certainly, it has irreparably damaged her chances of leadership. Cowen has promised to work closely with the incoming party leader in order to ensure that government business and party business are managed tightly and well.

That's not in question. The issue for Fianna Fail now is to speedily, before the end of the coming week, elect a new leader.

The party needs to be sure that it has someone of experience, passion and action -- because nothing else will save it.

Sunday Independent