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Medb Ruane: People knew in their minds and bones and pay dockets that Cowen was promoting party before people

Brian Cowen finally achieved the impossible. The man with lower ratings than a prize-winning limbo dancer gave the nation exactly what it wants. On Thursday, he delivered Ireland from the purgatory into which he'd helped plunge it, when he called a General Election for Friday, March 11.

Happy days? Cowen's announcement didn't signal a Damascus-like conversion to a different leadership style. It was born of chaos, delivered with confusion and arrived long past its best-before date. More than two years have passed since the panic of the bank guarantee, followed by endless, unprecedented nightmares from NAMA to the IMF.

More wealth was transferred from the State to the banking sector than there were citizens alive to pay. The people weren't consulted on the grounds that he knew best. Thousands have had to leave their homeland and sadly watch its status dwindle in the rest of the world. Those who stayed have endured more anxiety and fear than is reasonable, even in these times.

The call to patriotism urged by Cowen and Brian Lenihan had been heard. Yet the same men responded to pleas for moderation and good sense with something close to contempt. Never were so many told they understood so little. Never were so many treated with such disrespect.

In the week that was, Cowen called a confidence motion, but what he tried to pull off were confidence tricks. Like the brawny boy in the schoolyard, he set about asserting himself as the biggest lad around. And there he remained, happy as a pig in the proverbial small pool where he felt most at home, until his Government's position became wholly unsustainable.

Big-picture politics -- emigration, reform, bailouts, national morale -- played no part in days that energised Cowen more than, well, anything in living memory. The best it showed was that Fianna Fáil under Cowen resembles an old-fashioned boys' boarding school. The least it showed was how the dignity and integrity of the State itself was being undermined.

Cowen appointed himself temporary Foreign Affairs Minister after Micheal Martin resigned. Would he spend time repairing Ireland's international image and nurturing the diaspora? God knows there were enough Irish citizens heading overseas.

In former times, Fianna Fáil school squabbles had occasionally resulted in fisticuffs. Popularity votes were Chinese tortures conducted in public to maximise humiliation and fear. The point was for the school and its leader to rise in the league tables. But when the hulks from the IMF and European Monetary Fund had come to town, the boys were so scared that they wanted their mammies. Better party politics and frontbench wrangling than honestly facing the real world -- and the Irish electorate.

The confidence vote and its aftermath happened, need we repeat, because of what's known as Golfgate, which followed Garglegate, IMFgate, and other incredible incidents that provoked the nation into feelings from disbelief to shock and then disgust.

Events unfolded like a museum piece, until Thursday. Cowen wanted to restore his good name as party leader, especially after Golfgate. A majority of his parliamentary colleagues went along with him, even though only 8pc of the electorate support him as the country's leader.

The question on some people's lips was this. If Cowen was so smart, why was the economy in its current state? The answer was that Cowen's smarts stop at the schoolyard wall.

Cowen seemed happier with old-style politics, where great unfathomables such as sovereign debt and how open economies can survive globally hadn't been invented and therefore didn't have to be understood.

The confidence tricks revealed things you mightn't have expected. Lenihan emerged as surprisingly narcissistic and two-faced, saying one thing in public and another behind Cowen's back. Apparently he'd been stirring it against Cowen for some time and trying to extricate himself from any long-term responsibility for the economic chaos.

Mary Hanafin was described as "a prim aunt" by Brian Lenihan's aunt Mary O'Rourke. Hanafin's enigmatic card was so cryptic that no one really knew what she stood for.

On Monday, she said she'd declare herself "tomorrow!" but when tomorrow came, she apparently spoke so quietly the lads couldn't hear her and, by Wednesday, said her top priority was keeping her own seat.

Hanafin displayed Cardinal Desmond Connell's version of "mental reservation" when she defended her decision not to resign her ministry, despite voting against Cowen, by explaining, at length, the difference between Cowen as Taoiseach and as Fianna Fáil leader. It was her worst media moment yet.

So Cowen's tricks exposed weakness in two of the chief leadership contenders, Lenihan and Hanafin. That left Martin in prime position for the FF leadership, if Cowen ever agreed to stand down.

His allies say Cowen is not a good communicator. In fact, he communicates all too well. People knew in their minds and bones and pay dockets that Cowen was promoting party before people and himself above all. They know they aren't as dumb as he thought.

While Cowen gambled Ireland's present and future to prove that he and his policies were right, economy and society deteriorated with every decision he took and every denial he uttered. Lemass, Lynch and de Valera's mantles became threadbare under his leadership. At last, he's made the right call.

Indo Review