HE looked relieved. No more ducking and diving, no more wondering who was plotting behind his back and denying it to his face. From now on, all he has to do is be Taoiseach. He looked like a man who had decided to put down a weight that was doing his back in.
If there was tension in the room at the Merrion Hotel it was among the TV reporters trying to get their face time, and the others who had to ask very important questions about nothing in particular. When a young reporter tried to get argumentative over something that didn't matter very much, Brian Cowen put him down gently. We all have to respect each other, he said.
Gone was the shrill man fighting for his political life. Here was the new Cowen persona -- Mr Reasonable, making a considered decision in the best interests of "the party". And, since people are sick to their back teeth of the party, references to the party now tend to be quickly followed by the explanations that the party always acts in what it believes are the best interests of the country.
Cowen was going. But he's staying. A week ago he thought it was madness to have one person leader of the government party and another person Taoiseach -- but, hey, what the hell? We play the cards we're dealt, right? Or, as Cowen put it: "We will manage the situation . . . it doesn't in any way affect government business."
He's quit -- but he hasn't gone away, you know.
Cowen told us to cast off "the shroud of negativity". He deplored the "pervasive negativity" that has greeted his policies. Opponents of his reckless policies are being mindlessly "negative". To oppose the endless recapitalisation of zombie banks is a form of obstructive grumpiness. With this one leap, the theory goes, the party will be free -- to fight the election under a new banner, with a new hero, while Cowen continues as Taoiseach. The effort to get to here, to wriggle out of the corner into which Cowen painted his party, has involved a riot of twisting and turning, of backstabbing, of recklessness, gutlessness, lying and deceit -- on the part of his colleagues and friends. Many of whom were simultaneously his deadly enemies.
Having shrugged off Biffo, the party leaders have less than seven weeks to construct a new image. No longer are they the creators and protectors of the Bankers' Republic, the guardians of Light Regulation. They will attempt to recast themselves as the saviours of a nation bedevilled by the pervasive negativity of those who are not blessed by the light of understanding that comes with membership of The Party.
Over the years, knowing that Charlie Haughey was a thief and a perjurer, the party faithful defended his every lie and his every offshore account. His enemies, they sniffed, were negative people who revelled in hatred of the one true and apostolic party.
When Bertie Ahern was questioned about large unexplained lumps of money found in his possession, the party faithful denounced those negative bowsies who dared pry into where Bertie got his Holy Communion money. When he was found in possession of the sterling deposits he swore he
didn't have -- well, they said, he's a nice man. And when he said he won it on a horse, they accepted that too.
By and by, Cowen and Brian Lenihan tragically gambled the nation's sovereignty on the solvency of the banks (and lost). By then, the citizens were beginning to find it harder to swallow mad explanations. (We had to destroy the country in order to save the banks, so that the banks could -- eh, save the country.) The credibility drained away, and left Cowen standing in front of a microphone in the Merrion Hotel, explaining haplessly that he's stabilised the economy and we're on the road to recovery.
Cowen has taken a hiding, but it's hard to find tears for him. His future is assured. An astounding pension, and two police drivers assigned to cart him around for the rest of his life. We might think about how the rest of us will cope with permanent high unemployment, emigration, shredded services and gutted pensions -- but that would be to indulge in negativity, and Brian wouldn't like that.
Someone else will lead the party, Cowen will remain Chief of All the Gaels. The job of Taoiseach, now that we are a protectorate of the European Union, consists of opening emails from the bureaucrats of the ECB and the IMF. And passing on their instructions to the Cabinet. Even Cowen can manage that for seven weeks.