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Time for curtain to fall on Brian's slapstick panto

Watching RTE's Frontline debate last week made me want to cry out, like the rest of the public, and say 'bring on the fighting bears'. The feeling grows, with the radio and TV debate on the economy, but it was crystallised with the Frontline debate.

On the panel was Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael and Labour's Pat Rabbitte, who set out their respective stalls with cogency and passion. They differed on public service cuts but were reassuringly similar on the need for a review of the IMF bailout. They are in election mode.

Beside them, was Michael McGrath of Fianna Fail who did a decent enough job of defending the Government. The forthcoming election should not be seen as a mere "coronation of FG and Labour", he said. He's right. It should be a contest. But if that is the case, then let us have it right away. Let us delay no longer -- regardless of what happens to Brian Cowen.

For the danger is that we are having so much foreplay, so to speak, that we will be too exhausted for the actual tryst of a contest. Labour and FG politicians must be browned off at this stage having to explain the hypothetical differences in a hypothetical coalition. Let them have the real thing, or at the very least, let the public decide.

The two parties are like a shy country couple, about whom the locals have so much to say about their possible pairing, that when it comes to the first dance they'll be almost crippled with shyness. Almost -- it'd be hard to see the likes of Pat Rabbitte, Alan Shatter or Joan Burton holding back when it comes to a government being formed.

There is also the danger, with stringing out this election, of yet more strange revelations and 'gates' (Garglegate, Golfgate) coming down the track, with further embarrassment not just for a depleted Fianna Fail, but for the country as well, and its international standing. That's the last thing we need.

So what are we waiting for? Apparently, for the passage of the Finance Bill and for the Greens to pass some of their policies, such as the Climate Change Bill and the law on political donations. These are laudable goals, and it is to the Greens' credit that they remain a policy party. As John Gormley chirpily declared during the week, "we are a policy party and didn't expect that they'd have to report on the minutiae of a golf game". True, but welcome to Irish politics, John. Climate change may be a major political issue internationally, but in Ireland the political game is foremost a pantomime of personalities and intrigue and those big issues are secondary.

Which is all the more reason why the Greens should get out now and force an election. Anyway, this is hardly the time for climate change legislation, what with an angry public besieged by recession and bailing out the banks.

So surely there is a better time for these measures, and a time when they can be passed with wider party support. Would FG and Labour be opposed to bills on climate change and political donations? I doubt it. If they're opposed to the other Green policy, for an expensive super-sized Dublin mayor, then that would be good news, since this mayor idea is something that only the Greens seem to want. But why would the Greens think they would be rewarded for prolonging an unpopular government to get these measures through? It might satisfy their core base but it will mean little to a distracted public and would more likely lose them votes.

But likewise, what is FF waiting for? And why does the party, or those at the very top of it (be it Brian, or Micheal or Mary) think that in the next three months things will get better? In fact, the very opposite is the case. A delay will just see more public opposition and anger, more revelations and more frustration for their own candidates who are crying out for an election date.

According to Frank Fahey, there is no need to rush to the polls, now that the hard part has been sorted, with the IMF bailout and the Budget passed. But again surely the opposite is the case. If the difficult, unstable period is behind us (hopefully), with Fianna Fail's name upon it, then surely it's time to depart the stage. The public does not understand why a government with minuscule support has to stick around to deal with the paperwork of the Finance Bill.

According to the conspiracy theorists, some FF brass are determined to get to St Patrick's Day, to attend those foreign parades and present the bowls of shamrock. But can this possibly be the case? What is to be gained from this? If untrue, then the Opposition's charge that this is the case is even more childish. More likely, the Paddy's Day ambition has become some mythical line in the sand which symbolises the Government's determination not to be pushed into an immediate election. Like a man being prepared for execution, but continuously making legal appeals, the Government has decided it will determine when to have the election and you just won't budge it. This would reflect Cowen's character, if nothing else.

However, according to Mary O'Rourke, who these days is the equivalent of a 'truth drug' in a generally run-for-cover Fianna Fail, the party's candidates are tired of the uncertainty and want Mr Cowen to name a date for an election now -- whatever about a date for his own departure. Despite the daunting task that faces them, the party's candidates are in "a state of suspended animation", said Mary, "about when the poll will be".

"If we knew where we were, we'd be able to plan a way out," explained Mary, meaning her party, but she could have been referring to the country. "We just don't know. I just think that if we knew, we could plan accordingly." Even if that means being led to the execution chamber, while the shy couple of FG and Labour are finally taking to the dance floor. Go when you wish, Brian, but bring it on, the election -- as soon as possible.

Sunday Independent