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John Drennan: Party's over as Cowen crashes out of Neverland

ON Wednesday morning it was clear that Brian Cowen was still 'elated' after the Tuesday night before. He was so 'elated' the normally dour Taoiseach beat the opposition up after an unfortunate intervention by Enda Kenny, who suggested the Labour motion of no confidence was "ill-timed and ill-judged".

As he chortled about how he entirely agreed with Enda and noted, "I tell you one thing lads, it's worth coming in here to see you", Cowen's 'elation' reached dangerous levels.

The danger level rose even higher as an even more 'elated' Taoiseach began to re-shuffle his Cabinet after midnight. Sadly, for Mr Cowen, the hangover kicked in on Thursday morning and is not going to go away for some time.

In truth, even before the man got the job that he never wanted, we all suspected it was always going to end in tears. But even though there was always more than a small element of the prodigal son surrounding Mr Cowen, no-one could expect this child-like Falstaff would squander so much of his inheritance.

Astonishingly, the second shortest-lived Taoiseach in the country, dissipated an initial 54 per cent popularity rating in addition to his popularity within Fianna Fail, his support within the Cabinet, the support of his coalition partners, his support amongst party members and the second-biggest government majority since the war.

And of course, the worst example of his squandermania is that his self-indulgent arrogant laziness and terrible character flaws destroyed the country he loved so eloquently . . . well, within the warm confines of the pub at least.

It all meant that by the end, like so many others who suffer from his fatal flaw, the Prince Hal of the bar lobby was reduced to the political status of being dressed in rags begging for spare political change.

In fairness, at least it ended with a little bit of dignity as Mr Cowen for once put the country above the party for, by staying on as Taoiseach but resigning as leader of Fianna Fail, he may at least ensure that the critical Finance Bill is passed.

After that, for Fianna Fail it will be the abyss, for nothing can rescue it now. Micheal Martin and Brian Lenihan,

who appears to have belatedly got the credit for applying the coup de grace to the stricken king, may fight over the carcass as Mary Hanafin circles. Even Eamon O Cuiv may appear an attractive option.

Ultimately, cute Micheal of the eternally furrowed brow and the capacity to agree with the three sides of every argument will probably win, but even he will not save the party for it is the Fianna Fail brand, not just the leader, that is toxic.

The party might once have been associated with success, ceol agus craic, the Galway races, the GAA, foaming pints of Guinness and Bertie 'and the way he might wink at you'.

Now, however, it is associated with ghost estates, derelict high streets, shattered dreams, fear, despair, the mocking laughter of Jay Leno about a 'drunken moron', un-employment, homelessness, and mass emigration.

And nice but spineless Micheal Martin, the spoofing barrister Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin are not going to wash away that toxicity.

At the zenith of the Celtic Tiger, we used to marvel how it was that Ireland experienced over one short decade the sort of social, economic and psychological changes it normally takes a country 40 years to secure.

And then, in two ill-starred years, Mr Cowen and the worst, most spineless cabinet in the history of the State plunged us back to the 1950s.

The worst feature of it all wasn't down to bad luck or communications, for Mr Cowen was the lazy author of his long-drawn out political suicide note.

We looked for inspiration and direction, and instead all we received from Mr Cowen was a cold sense of absence.

Truly he was the Taoiseach who, rather like King James during the battle of the Boyne, fled from the theatre of conflict to the safety of a caravan before the battle was over.

Such was his appetite for self-destruction that his resignation will have come as a relief to his TDs. The extent of his Pearse-like death wish was so severe that many suspected Cowen would, like Cu Chulainn with his back strapped to a rock, fight to the death until party, country and everything else turned to rubble.

Some indeed wondered if his desire to stay on was the modern equivalent of a despairing scorched-earth policy where the country would be levelled as a punishment for its failure to live up to the ideals of Fianna Fail.

But, at the end, though he simply realised his position was unsustainable. By yesterday, Cowen had lost the confidence of his party to such an extent that a growing number of back-bench TDs were prepared to vote against the Government, abstain or go 'missing' when it came to the Labour party's no-confidence motion next Wednesday.

He might have been laughing at the Labour no-confidence motion on Wednesday but in a fast-moving political landscape that was utterly unsuited to the Taoiseach's stately style of political warfare it had turned into 'a sword of Damocles that was hanging over Cowen's head'.

Threats by TDs that if Cowen didn't go "a lot of fellows will tell him they are going to have a Dessie O'Malley-standing-by-the-Republic-moment" was indicative of how much Cowen has lost the centre ground of the party.

He did it all by himself too, for the shockwave that spread through Fianna Fail on Thursday was epitomised by one TD's claim that he "knew how Hitler and the generals felt when the bomb went off in the bunker and fellows were wandering around dazed looking for missing arms and legs".

By Saturday, in spite of his self-imposed Trappist exile, even Mr Cowen must have known he had lost the support of an eclectic combination of younger, pragmatic deputies and older loyalists.

Sources from the rebel wing of the party claimed that previous supporters of the Taoiseach such as Margaret Conlon, Johnny Brady, Aine Kitt, Darragh O'Brien, Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley and even John Cregan were utterly disenchanted.

Apart from the damage done to his relationship with the Greens the 'resignations' of the Fianna Fail ministers damaged Mr Cowen's authority in another critical way -- for their departure stripped away Cowen's political authority in the party to such an extent he was a man alone who had no big beasts left to defend him.

He had stripped himself of just about everything else, for as party grandees such as Ray MacSharry and old friends like Willie O'Dea sadly abandoned Mr Cowen's standard, he resembled a latter-day Lear -- naked on a blasted heath bewailing the loss of his kingdom. In truth, strange as it might appear, the children's author J M Barrie provides us with a more apposite analogy.

Brian Cowen was the modern equivalent of Peter Pan, the child who never grew up.

Our tragedy is that the man who never left the Never Never land of the Fifties and Ber Cowen's pub in Clara was put in charge of a party and a country which, like Peter Pan, has never fully grown up.

This week, as Fianna Fail prepares to face its own electoral sword of Damocles, would be a good time for us to start.

Sunday Independent