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James Downey: Cowen is unfit to lead, but so is the Fianna Fail party

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NOT since the resignation of Sean Lemass in 1966 has any Fianna Fail Taoiseach left office entirely of his own volition or at a time of his own choosing. The only partial exception was Jack Lynch, who brought forward his departure by a few months, despite his well-justified misgivings.

Now Brian Cowen is about to add his name to the list. It's ironic, because the last time round he showed the way to do these things.

A leader has to go when the men in the grey suits tell him the time has come. In 2008, Cowen was the chief among the men in the grey suits.

What a difference now. He is leaving in circumstances close to chaos.

Fianna Fail, under whatever leader, faces a devastating general election defeat. The economy is in tatters. National spirit is on the floor. Confidence in the Government has collapsed.

In Europe and farther afield, our friends and supposed friends look on in amazement, some with pity, some with less kindly feelings.

Let us look at one little chink of light. One cause of amazement is that the deadly combination of a financial crisis, an economic crisis and a political crisis has not been accompanied by social unrest.

The people have shown themselves willing to wait and punish the Government at the right time and in the right way -- at the election.

But others have not been punished. Almost nobody believes that anyone will go to prison, just as almost nobody believes in the promised banking reform and political reform, which we need so desperately.

This week brought us two huge stories with colossal political and economic implications. But the more worrying story got little attention because the other was so sensational.

Our 12.5pc corporation tax, the key to recovery, has been under attack for years. Now Nicolas Sarkozy has intensified the attack.

He has done so at our time of greatest weakness and least respect -- and least stability.

Simultaneously, we have heard quite extraordinary and contradictory accounts of events during the lead-up to the bank guarantee of September 29-30, 2008.

You may feel contempt for the self-serving, whingeing former Lords of Humankind. You may be astonished by the transactions described. You don't have to believe any of the accounts. But they have given us a valuable insight into the cronyism that has undermined our economy and our democracy, and into the gap between the practitioners and reality.

The cronyism is not new. It goes back all through our existence as an independent State and beyond. Much of it is, I fear, ineradicable.

But it never previously reached such depths, or caused so much damage, as under the premiership of Brian Cowen.

For much of it, he is not personally to blame. He inherited -- was literally born into -- a system with which he saw nothing wrong. For him, the Fianna Fail party has a natural right to power -- or at least to office. And office is not about achievement or even about respect for the proprieties. It is about status and privilege.

He was genuinely shocked when Eamon Gilmore accused him of "economic treason". He simply did not understand the charge. A Fianna Fail Taoiseach, to his way of thinking, cannot commit treason, it's against nature.

Shortly after the bank guarantee, I spoke to one of the leading members of his Cabinet. The minister threw his hands in the air and said: "Cowen's in denial."

Cowen has been in denial ever since. He refused to believe that the representatives of the IMF were on the way here until the event had actually occurred.

He has refused to accept that his Cabinet has fallen apart, that his party -- like the rest of the country -- has no confidence in him and that Fianna Fail is now fighting for mere survival.

I AM writing these words on Friday afternoon. The Taoiseach may resign by tonight. If not, he will find it hard to last the weekend.

Bizarre speculation is circulating. It is suggested that he could resign as party leader but remain on as interim Taoiseach until after the election; that he could yet face down the dissidents and win a vote of confidence; or that he could go down fighting.

None of these scenarios holds any appeal for me. Neither does the equally bizarre "consultation" process, aimed at finding out how his ministers and backbenchers feel, which is in progress as I write.

I wonder how many of them have listed Cowen's mistakes. Told him, perhaps, that bank restructuring should have started in September 2008 or earlier? That he has sleepwalked through his premiership? Or that cronyism has brought us to a dreadful pass?

Probably none. Probably the best we can hope for, now and in the coming days, is a smoothly managed outcome and a little bit of dignity. We deserve that at least. And so, after all, does Brian Cowen.

But a party that is unfit to rule and cannot change its leadership without blood on the floor deserves very little.

Irish Independent