MICHEAL MARTIN, a man usually regarded as a cautious and sure-footed politician, last night changed the face of the Fianna Fail leadership with a dramatic proposal which flies in the face of historical precedent.
Unfortunately, the proposal was not only dramatic and in its way historic, but eccentric and bordering on daft. His suggested solution to his party's problems was to oust Brian Cowen as party leader but let him remain as Taoiseach until the general election when, presumably, the electorate will turn him out.
This idea had been in the air for some time in the political and media world. It may have had an appeal for the deputies who, as the Foreign Minister revealed last night, had approached him to discuss their concerns about the party's future. But most of those who heard it, dismissed it without hesitation.
Shortly before Mr Martin spoke, Mr Cowen had held a press conference at which he said he would not resign, and announced that he would table a vote of confidence in himself at tomorrow's meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party.
Asked about the proposition that he could stand down as party leader but remain Taoiseach, he described it as "not a good idea". In the circumstances, that was a very restrained comment.
One must wonder whether the Foreign Minister, or any of those whom he consulted, had given the matter any concentrated thought. It is almost equally difficult to see whose interests it could serve. Does he think a new leader could avoid the damage inflicted on the Taoiseach in a disastrous election campaign? That is a very naive notion.
It is hard to guess -- and hardly worth the trouble -- what effect, if any, it would have on the running of a shaky and ineffective administration. But it could do damage in the event of a sudden dramatic twist, such as we have seen all too often, occurring in the financial and economic crisis.
To make matters even more grotesque, Mr Martin has (quite rightly) offered his resignation as Foreign Minister to the Taoiseach, and the latter has rejected it. Bad enough that two Green ministers sit in the Cabinet after declaring their party's lack of confidence in the Taoiseach. Now we will have a Foreign Minister who proposes to express his own lack of confidence in a parliamentary party vote.
The Taoiseach's decision to hold this vote was to a considerable extent forced by events outside his control, and by the intense speculation that he might resign following his "consultations" with ministers and deputies.
His decision to force the question to an early ballot appeared to offer a glimpse of clarity. But before Mr Martin's intervention, there were some doubts about the result, including the possibility that a narrow majority might not suffice to save Mr Cowen's leadership.
In all probability, the intervention has done him a favour. Some deputies tempted to support a "heave" might vote for him simply to maintain some semblance of stability and prevent further chaos. That might be the best -- in the present turmoil, it may be the only -- way to achieve the most basic requirements of the political system and the country itself.
These requirements are blindingly obvious and easy to describe, though they appear to have escaped the notice of many, perhaps most, Fianna Fail ministers and deputies.
We need a general election as soon as possible. Much time has been wasted, and the Government has been disingenuous, or incompetent, or both, about the timetable for the Finance Bill. This Bill, once published, can be debated and passed within a week. For once, deputies should overcome their aversion to sitting long hours.
We can then proceed in an orderly manner to a general election campaign in which the issues are debated calmly and intelligently. Bluster and partisanship are inevitable, but they will not attract votes.
Voters know how badly we need a stable and competent government with a large Dail majority. They all know the dreadful record of minor parties. They must also know how harmful, as well as distasteful, is the spectacle of independent deputies holding a government to ransom after concluding secret deals.
The outcome is scarcely in doubt. But the survival of Fianna Fail as a major political force is in doubt. Its recent antics will not help that cause.