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Sam Smyth: 'High noon' crisis almost led to Brian's demise

BARRY Andrews' mobile phone rang at 12.30am yesterday -- and when the Taoiseach phones, a minister of state listens intently, even in the witching hour.

Not a full member of Cabinet, he must have wondered what national calamity had triggered a call from Cowen.

Not a man to beat around the bush, the Taoiseach offered Andrews a full ministry.

Cowen enthusiastically explained his plan to put new faces in Cabinet, to refresh the Fianna Fail team for the General Election.

It is not known how the Taoiseach reacted when Andrews explained that as Children's Minister he wanted to complete his work on the children's referendum and declined the offer.

If he was a superstitious man Cowen might have considered a direct, if polite, refusal to be a bad omen for his rejuvenation project.

And if the rejuvenation project was jinxed less than an hour after midnight yesterday, it was hurtling toward a personal apocalypse for Cowen just after noon.

Senior figures from the Green Party and their Fianna Fail counterparts were desperately trying to hammer out a compromise in the corridors of Government Buildings.

"It was very, very tense," said one Fianna Fail minister.

At one point Finance Minister Brian Lenihan had Green Party leader John Gormley fixed firmly in his mesmerising gaze explaining the grave constitutional responsibilities involved if the Greens left Government.

The urgency of the deteriorating situation led Mary Hanafin to plead, "don't do this, it's wrong," to the Green Party ministers who were threatening to resign.

The Greens made it very clear they were ready to walk away if the impasse could not be broken.

Around 1.15pm yesterday, just 15 minutes before the Taoiseach was scheduled to address the Dail and the nation, Hanafin suggested a formula to Gormley.

If the idea of ministerial appointments was scrapped, and other cabinet members shared the responsibilities of the retiring ministers, would that be acceptable?

It was Cowen who proposed March 11 as polling day and the Greens agreed to that and with Hanafin's compromise.

The Taoiseach rushed across the corridor that links Government Buildings to Leinster House and delivered his speech to the Dail.

Piecing together the extraordinary political events that led to this unprecedented political crisis shows up a series of monumental political miscalculations.

And it is Cowen who is solely responsible for the catalogue of bizarre political misjudgments.

It is not clear if Cowen made any other midnight calls offering cabinet posts but junior ministers Dara Colleary, Billy Kelleher and whip John Curran were at the top of everyone's list for promotion.

For more than a week the Taoiseach had known that Mary Harney was ready to step down as Health Minister although she was expected to serve until the end of the current Dail.

The three other ministers who had already given notice that they would not be standing -- Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen -- were also expected to stay in their posts.

There was also Micheal Martin's portfolio as Foreign Affairs Minister that Cowen had accepted for himself, making a total of five cabinet seats potentially lying vacant.

It was sometime between his victory in the confidence motion on Tuesday night and Wednesday night that Cowen decided to go for broke.

But from early yesterday morning he knew his position was under grave threat: first, the Green Party let him know that it would leave office if he forged ahead with his plan; then from the reaction of Fianna Fail backbenchers.

Hanafin went to his office in Government Buildings and spelt out the political facts of life to Cowen: if he didn't back down immediately, an election was inevitable.

After his humiliating climbdown speech in the Dail, even his most loyal supporters couldn't find the words to defend him.

A good friend should remind him that when you're explaining, you're losing -- and Cowen looks like a monumental loser.

Irish Independent