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We came through the Arms Crisis and Albert's downfall ... but this shambles is the biggest mess of all

YOU don't have to be that old to remember the Arms Crisis. And even younger voters will remember the day Charlie Haughey sacked Brian Lenihan, or the crisis over Harry Whelehan that brought down Albert Reynolds.

Political crises like that tend to have a number of things in common. They are surrounded by high drama. They arise out of a situation of the political leader's own making, usually involving a serious tactical misjudgment.

They're compounded by errors of communication.

They end in tears.

I remember all of them, and for my sins I was involved in some of them.

But I never remember anything like yesterday. Listening to it on the radio, watching it unfold on successive bulletins, it was like seeing an endless train crash in slow motion.

Never in the history of Irish politics has so much bungling and misjudgment been inflicted on the population of our country by so few.

But somehow, it wasn't surprising.

After the Taoiseach won his confidence vote on Tuesday night, I got a call from one of our radio stations to ask me if I thought there could be a "bounce" in the polls for Fianna Fail. Brian Cowen had put in a number of combative performances on the media.


He had dealt with his opponents, it seemed, in a civilised but fair way.

Perhaps, after all, he was on the way back.

Maybe, I said. But there is a golden rule in politics, I reminded my caller, and I've never seen it overcome before. When a politician or party -- especially a Government party -- becomes accident-prone, things always go from bad to worse.

There's never any comeback. I have to admit it would never have occurred to me for a minute that the next accident would happen so quickly.

But it has.

And that makes it possible to guarantee now that there will be more accidents and pitfalls between now and polling day. For every good performance we see, there will be more catastrophic bungles.

There are 50 days to go until the election.

There is, I think, a strong likelihood that the Taoiseach will survive as party leader throughout those 50 days, because he cannot be replaced as Taoiseach -- it would require a Dail vote he cannot win.

At this stage, it would be impossible for any new leader to fight an election campaign with the old leader sitting in Government Buildings, neither of them with any accountability to the other. (Mind you, it's the only insane proposition Fianna Fail haven't tried yet.)

So it's much more likely that our Taoiseach will spend the next 50 days trying to conduct a national campaign in which no one listens.

There are whole swathes of the country in which he won't be welcomed by his own colleagues and party members.

They won't want his poster hanging from the lampposts in their towns.

They won't want to be photographed with him in the local shopping centres.

All of this is the consequence of self-inflicted wounds.

From the moment our economy started to go down the drain, right up to the minute he put down a motion of confidence in himself, we have been led by a Taoiseach who had no interest in communicating with us. Now the skies are dark with chickens coming home to roost.

It had been predicted that in this coming campaign, the televised debates between the party leaders would be crucial, and that would be Brian Cowen's moment to shine.

too late

Do you remember that being said about Gordon Brown in the recent British election? It didn't happen for him, and it's too late now for Brian Cowen.

It's over for Fianna Fail, the once-great political movement.

Their challenge now is to survive as a small collection of individuals and to try to meld themselves into some sort of a political party in the future.

But the progression has been extraordinary, and inexorable.

First the people stopped liking them. Then they stopped trusting them. More recently, people stopped respecting them. Now, people couldn't care less. They just can't wait to see the back of them. And there's no recovery from that.