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Andrew Lynch: Come on Mary, you know you have to go

She's blown it. Mary Coughlan's showdown with Michael O'Leary has ended in complete failure, with the Ryanair boss declaring that he has no option but to take his 300 new aircraft maintenance jobs elsewhere.

It's the latest F grade on a ministerial report card that's already littered with them -- and confirms that for the sake of her own dignity, it's time for Brian Cowen to find himself a new Enterprise Minister.

Although this controversy erupted into public view only last weekend, the reality is that Coughlan has paid the price for a full six months of dithering over O'Leary's original offer.

The correspondence between them started last August, when the Ryanair chief made it clear that the jobs were entirely dependent on Government help to secure the now infamous Hangar Six at Dublin Airport.

If Coughlan had started working quietly on this behind the scenes, she might well have been able to hammer out a compromise with the DAA and Aer Lingus. By the time O'Leary gave her a public ultimatum, it was probably too late -- and in the bitter war of words that followed over the airwaves, he did her up like a kipper.

The most ominous sign of all for the Tanaiste is that her Fianna Fail colleagues have been so slow to come to her defence, particularly the party's TDs in north Dublin whose constituents include many former SR Technics workers.

Their only tactic is to garner sympathy for her by depicting O'Leary as a sexist bully who enjoys humiliating politicians in public. It's true that the man is no saint, but then he's never pretended to be -- and no matter how pathetic Coughlan looked at the end of last night's meeting, feeling sorry for senior politicians is a luxury that the country just can't afford.

Even though it's a cliche at this stage to describe the Minister as out of her depth, that doesn't make it any less true. The grim reality is that with unemployment at record levels, she simply doesn't seem to understand how to save jobs or create them. She failed to rescue Dell, Waterford Glass or Bank of Scotland, she still hasn't arranged a meeting with the US multinational that took over Cadbury a fortnight after promising to do so and her department is reportedly putting small businesses at risk by not managing to pay its bills on time.

The irony is that over the past few months, some FF optimists were starting to claim that the Tanaiste's performance had improved.

This was almost entirely due to the fact that she had largely stopped media interviews, her confidence shattered by a series of gaffes that came close to turning her into a laughing stock.

As her most recent clanger proved (she told the BBC at the weekend that some Irish people were emigrating "to enjoy themselves"), it's got to the stage where her handlers must be frightened to let her go near a microphone.

So why doesn't the Taoiseach just replace her tomorrow? The answer to this is a complicated one, but it boils down to the fact that Cowen can't bring himself to admit he made a terrible blunder by appointing her.

Although the change is bound to be forced upon him sooner or later, the chances are that he will move her back to her old job in Agriculture while allowing her to keep the title of Tanaiste.

On a personal level, few people in Leinster House take much pleasure in what is happening to Mary Coughlan. She is a genuinely nice person, considerate to others and always quick with a joke.

She is simply in the wrong job -- and if the Taoiseach can't accept he has made a mistake, she should have the courage to go into his office and tell him herself.