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'Soldiers of destiny' don't even have a map

The band of political loyalty only stretches so far -- and last week in Fianna Fail that band finally snapped. Brian Cowen's leadership has been vulnerable since the European and local elections in June 2009.

He has presided over a haemorrhaging of support for his party and a collapse of the Irish economic boom. In truth, Cowen has been a caretaker leader since the IMF arrived last autumn. And he has only remained in office due to the inaction of Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan in sanctioning a heave.

Their individual uncertainty has been about more than the fear of losing out in a leadership contest. The chalice on offer is poisoned in the extreme. Never has Fianna Fail gone a general election campaign knowing it will be defeated and has no prospect of government when the votes are counted.

Fianna Fail leaders -- including Cowen himself in recent months -- have faced bigger controversies than the fallout from the Anglo golf outing. Cowen's precarious position has been caused by public anger at the economy he helped to break. He has been on borrowed time for months as his colleagues grapple with the uncertain issue of whether a new leader could actually lessen the scale of the defeat. The procrastination has only strengthened the impression of a party so weakened that it is no longer capable of even organising a decent leadership coup.

The Cork North Central backbencher Noel O'Flynn said on Friday that the election campaign would be "completely different" with a new leader. But Cowen or no Cowen, the general election will be dominated by the interlinked issues of the economy and the banks. Fianna Fail wants a campaign about the future, but the voters are determined to cast judgment on the recent past.

The leadership decision -- change now or wait until after the general election -- is essentially a gamble. The danger for Fianna Fail is that the outcome could still be: heads, we lose; tails, we lose.

But if Fianna Fail TDs act in public as so many have been saying in private for months, then gamble they will, and the outcome from Brian Cowen's listening exercise should see a new leader in place within days.

A party facing defeat -- and driven only by the objective of minimising its losses -- is unlikely to take a risk in selecting its new leader. The so-called Ogra Generation of younger deputies will have to wait. Steadying the party organisation for the election campaign and picking up the pieces afterwards will require a leader with a wise head, experience and judgment. The challenges will be enormous.

Fianna Fail is likely to have fewer than 40 seats, perhaps even fewer than 30.

Ned O'Keeffe speculated last week that if things got any worse there could be as few as 12 Fianna Fail TDs. Rebuilding the party organisation will be an even bigger task than that faced by Fine Gael after its 2002 meltdown.

Back in 1926, when Fianna Fail was founded, de Valera send out his loyal lieutenants to establish local branches and find candidates. A few second-hand cars were bought for Sean Lemass and Gerry Boland as they embarked on what we now describe as the 'chicken and chips' trail. Their work helped establish many political dynasties such as the Blaneys in Donegal, which last to this day.

Under the new leader, the Ogra Generation will have to undertake a similar rebuilding exercise. It will have to use the local elections in 2014, and most likely the subsequent general election -- as part of a process of getting Fianna Fail back into a position of being a serious party of government.

An equally significant challenge for Fianna Fail will come from within the Dail chamber itself. As the new Fine Gael-Labour coalition implements continuing fiscal rectitude policies, Fianna Fail will have to avoid the easy option of joining the Sinn Fein agenda of protest.

Gerry Adams will want to progress the idea of Irish unity. Any new leader who moves the party in such a direction -- and adopts protest for protest's sake -- would only prolong the difficult political road ahead for Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent