THE Fianna Fail leadership battle has been full of surprises. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the newest -- that the man most damaged by it may be Brian Lenihan. Yet that is the immediate conclusion to be drawn from the Taoiseach's victory in last night's confidence vote.
As someone once said of university politics, the contests are so bitter because the stakes are so low. That would not usually be the case with the leadership of Fianna Fail, but this time an election is only weeks away and the dominant Irish political party faces something close to destruction.
If that happens, Mr Cowen will be gone, despite his impressive tactical win. In such circumstances, one wonders what was the point of it all. Whatever the purpose was, who did what in this heave may well have a considerable bearing on who does succeed Mr Cowen in a couple of months' time.
It has been a remarkable political achievement for Mr Lenihan to be seen as a potential leader of the party, having been the Finance Minister who had to bring in a series of Budgets, each of which could qualify for the well-worn description, toughest in the history of the state.
But Mr Lenihan succeeded in squaring this circle. Like others, however, he underestimated the fighting qualities of Brian Cowen. More than TDs have been surprised by his performance in the leadership battle. That, however, is part of the problem. He is clearly much more comfortable and adept in party affairs -- even unpleasant ones -- than he is in leading the country.
His challengers appear to have been thrown into confusion when it became clear that Mr Cowen might have enough support in the parliamentary party to carry on. Micheal Martin decided to oppose Mr Cowen's leadership but remain in the Cabinet. It is to his credit that he did so publicly but this strange way of going about things will put a question mark over his leadership qualities.
Mr Lenihan said nothing until yesterday, when he declared that he would support Mr Cowen. Unfortunately, a number of TDs -- as well as political journalists -- formed the distinct impression that, not only was the Finance Minister not supporting the Taoiseach, but that he would mount his own challenge. That turned what had been a remarkably civilised affair into a more typically bitter battle.
In these circumstances, Mr Lenihan's claim that he was busy on affairs of state, while plausible in itself, is of little avail. When the vacancy does arise, he may have lost supporters he would have counted upon. Mary Hanafin has largely stayed out of the fray, but may have stayed out too much.
The affairs of state cannot be ignored in all of this. It is an irony that, if Ireland did not have the EU/IMF funds, the major governing party could not afford the luxury of such squabbling, because of the effect it would have on efforts to borrow in the markets.
But the bailout funds are paid only every three months and the paymasters will expect that none of this affects the programme agreed with them. That includes the passage of the Finance Bill. The Government seems already to have been distracted from this task, while the Labour Party's no-confidence motion assumes that the Government can fall, and the Bill be buried and resurrected after an election, without any adverse consequences.
They may be right, but they are running a risk both for the country and themselves. If political instability led to a funding crisis, Labour would get the blame just as a new government was taking office.
With the opinion polls so overwhelming, it is difficult to fathom why the politicians are behaving as they are. It is clearly in the national interest that the Bill be dealt with as quickly as possible, and a general election held immediately afterwards.
Perhaps they cannot really believe what the polls are saying. In some ways, that would be understandable. It seems the only explanation for why the politicians could not reach a consensus on how to arrange an orderly transfer of power which would not put the economy at further risk.
One thing the opinion polls are saying is that, in this crisis, people want their politicians to rise above the usual petty warfare. So far, they have been disappointed.