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Cowen demise a case of when, not if

"Labour must wait," was Eamon de Valera's stern instruction during the early days of Irish independence. Almost a century later, it looks as if that wait is finally over.

Today's sensational opinion poll confirms that the recession has turned the political landscape upside down -- and with Eamon Gilmore's party surging ahead to an incredible 32pc support, the next general election is now officially a three-way contest.

Brian Cowen must have received the news just as he headed into RTE for a Prime Time interview about Wednesday's devastating banking reports. With the thought of Fianna Fail's historically low result burning in his brain, it was perhaps no surprise that he struggled to cope with Miriam O'Callaghan's questioning.

To put FF's 17pc in context, remember that they've never got less than 39pc in any general election since 1927.

If this poll is accurate, they now face the humiliating prospect of losing more than half of their 71 TDs -- which means that unless they have a death wish, they need to start thinking about a new leader.

The popular choice would be Brian Lenihan, whose steady performance as Minister for Finance has made him our most respected politician.

He also comes with the added bonus that since he didn't even enter the cabinet until 2007, he bears none of the responsibility for the mistakes that were exposed by this week's reports.

Unfortunately, Lenihan also has serious health problems that would rule him out of any leadership contest in the near future.

That leaves Micheal Martin in pole position. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has also had a good couple of years, using the job to show off the smooth presentational skills that his boss so conspicuously lacks.

In Ancient Rome, emperors hired a slave to whisper "Remember you're only mortal" in their ear whenever they got carried away by their own power. Eamon Gilmore should think about doing something similar, because deep down he must realise that his new status is due to his opponent's weaknesses as much his own strengths. He now has a great opportunity to make history by becoming the first Labour Taoiseach -- but as Britain's Liberal Democrats found out, third party surges can turn out to be a flash in the pan.

Brian Cowen's political demise is now only a matter of time. Today's poll suggests that the longer he clings to office, the worse his eventual defeat will be. For his own sake, the Taoiseach should spend this weekend giving serious thought to the idea of quitting sooner rather than later -- and giving both his party and his country the chance to make a fresh start.