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Hurt, shame and despair

BRIAN Cowen has become a lightning rod for the hurt, shame and despair that haunts Ireland these days, but it was always foolish of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party to blame him for a crisis that has as much to do with the culture of Fianna Fail as it does with the boss they elected unanimously in 2008.

No leader of Fianna Fail has retired without being mired in controversy since Jack Lynch in 1979, and even the late Mr Lynch's second, brief period in office was mired in a collapse in party discipline and an economic crisis entirely of Mr Lynch's own making.

One has to think back to Sean Lemass, who resigned 45 years ago, for a Fianna Fail leader who left office without any whiff of scandal or tainted by economic mismanagement.

The TDs and ministers trying to drive Mr Cowen from office may yet prevail but it would be a pyrrhic victory. It is not the forthcoming election that matters for Fianna Fail but the years they now face in opposition.

Mr Cowen will be deposed by his colleagues because he is an electoral liability -- but he should really be deposed because he is not the right man to lead the party in the years ahead when fresh thinking and deep reform is needed.

The question now facing TDs is how to make their inevitable stint in opposition count. The party needs introspection and then rebirth and those necessary reforms can be done by those who are elected or those who are merely supporters.

The problem for the plotters is that the next man or woman to lead the party should be picked from the small band of TDs who will be returned by the electorate after March 11.

There is no need for any rush on this, for nobody will pay a blind bit of notice to the party's criticism of the next government for some time. Fianna Fail and its new leader will have to earn the right to knock the new government when Fianna Fail itself is to blame for so many of the problems that will bedevil the country over the next decade.

While it is wrong to blame Mr Cowen alone for the calamities that have befallen the party, it was equally wrong of the Taoiseach to proclaim, as he did yesterday, that he will lead the party into the next election and beyond.

Many argue that Mr Cowen does not belong in the 31st Dail and should not be contesting the election in any shape or form. His presence in the parliamentary party, assuming he is re-elected, will make it more difficult for the party to begin the hard task of working out what went wrong and then righting it.

Mr Cowen is old Fianna Fail to his finger tips; a man who supported Charlie Haughey and Bertie Ahern without question and who only challenged Albert Reynolds when he formed a coalition with the Progressive Democrats.

The next leader of Fianna Fail should be allowed to rebuild the party without ghosts from the past breathing down his or her neck.

The TDs seeking to bring Brian Cowen down in the dying days of this administration should remember that any successor they pick will lack any legitimacy in the eyes of the public and saddle the party with a leader picked by many TDs who will only serve under that leader for a few weeks before the electorate gives them the boot.

The next leader of Fianna Fail should be picked instead from those Fianna Fail TDs who win seats in March. These will be a battle-hardened crew who will have listened to the electorate. They will be winners because they have already evolved and they will have proved that they have some inkling of what voters want.

One of Mr Cowen's many grievous failings as leader has been his failure to groom or anoint a successor.

There is, in truth, nobody who could step forward and take over swiftly without causing chaos. Like Louis XV, Mr Cowen has adopted the motto of "Apres moi, le deluge" and has failed to make any plans for his own replacement.

The Fianna Fail parliamentary party has belatedly come to recognise this and must start to make succession plans as well as implementing root and branch reform in opposition. Failure to do so will see the party go the way of Louis XVI.

Irish Independent