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Andrew Lynch: Blustering Biffo will probably survive, which is a disaster for fianna fail

When you're a Taoiseach in crisis, you don't get birthdays like everyone else. Brian Cowen turned 51 yesterday, but the only present from his colleagues was a storm of controversy over his previously undisclosed contacts with disgraced Anglo Irish boss Sean FitzPatrick.

As long as there's no smoking gun, he will probably just about hold on to his job -- but if this has set the tone for the General Election campaign, then Fianna Fail are in even bigger trouble than we thought.

Cowen's statement on the affair last night managed to sum up just about everything wrong with his style of leadership. Instead of addressing the serious questions arising from his conversations with Seanie during those crucial months in 2008, he resorted to bluff and bluster by accusing his opponents of being out to smear him. He didn't even bother to appear in public, which means it is now almost three weeks since the country had so much as a glimpse of its leader.

At a party convention in Dun Laoghaire, meanwhile, one of the ministers most often mentioned as a potential alternative FF leader made her feelings perfectly clear. Asked three times if she had confidence in her boss, Mary Hanafin emulated St Peter by dodging the question on each occasion. She finally managed to come out with, "If Brian Cowen is my leader leading into the election, I'll go with that," -- and after that less than ringing endorsement, the Taoiseach must surely have heard the cock crowing. The problem for Hanafin and her rivals is that with the election campaign effectively started already, they have left it dangerously late for any kind of leadership heave.

The ghosts of Seanie Fitz and Anglo Irish will dominate proceedings when the Dail resumes tomorrow, but the lack of any further revelations should allow Cowen to brazen his way out. In other words, this war of words is bad enough to wound but not dangerous enough to kill -- which, from the opposition's point of view, is by far the best possible outcome.

Of course, Cowen still stands accused of misleading the Dail by not revealing the full extent of his relationship with Seanie before now. Since there is now a criminal investigation into the Anglo debacle, the Taoiseach can expect to be asked if he has been in touch with the gardai. It should also be remembered that the Government's own banking inquiry is due to deliver its report in a couple of months -- and it would be interesting to know if that golf game in Druids Glen was news to them, too.

The image of Biffo and Seanie strolling around a luxury golf course will not easily be forgotten, especially since it happened just a couple of months before Anglo and other banks put a gun to Cowen's head and demanded that he bail them out with public money.


As we all know, golf is a much more social game than squash or five-a-side football -- which means that to most ordinary people, the claim that they never discussed business is about as plausible as Bertie Ahern's insistence that he won his money on a horse.

Above all, this whole affair confirms the Taoiseach's reputation as a lousy communicator. When one of his predecessors John Bruton was caught being evasive in the Dail, he famously replied, "You didn't ask me the right question." Cowen doesn't even have that feeble excuse -- and the chances are that if Seanie hadn't shot his mouth off in a new book, those 2008 conversations would have remained secret forever.

The only birthday present that voters want to give Brian Cowen is a humble pie decorated with 51 candles. He is going to need a big appetite.