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Andrew Lynch: Exit gives Cowen by-election blues

Martin Cullen once said that during the negotiations for him to leave the PDs and join Fianna Fail in 1994, when he had a secret rendezvous in the Berkeley Court Hotel with Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and even had to leave the country for a week, he felt like he was living in a James Bond movie.

Long before his political career was ended yesterday by a chronic back ailment, however, it must have been obvious to him that he was never going to be a leading man.

After eight years at the cabinet table, his achievements are heavily outweighed by the negative publicity he constantly attracted -- and his decision to resign his Dail seat as well has left Brian Cowen's Government looking shakier than ever as the FF-Green coalition marks its 1,000th day in office. All politicians hope that, when they retire, their name will be linked with one outstanding policy success.

With Cullen, unfortunately, it's exactly the opposite.

After getting his first big job as Minister for the Environment in 2002, he staked his reputation on the success of those infamous electronic voting machines -- and when they went down in flames, so did his public image. In a way that was slightly unfair, since e-voting had actually been his predecessor Noel Dempsey's bright idea in the first place. Because Cullen defended the scheme so vigorously in public, however, he inevitably took the flak for the storage bill that currently stands at €52m and rising.

E-voting became the perfect symbol for this Government's flagrant waste of public money, along with the arrogance of ministers.

Cullen later complained that he had been made to look "a complete eejit" by his civil servants -- and in this case, he was absolutely right. He had never been popular with his FF colleagues, partly because as a non-drinker he rarely socialised in the Dail bar, partly because they felt he tried too hard to prove he was one of them and partly because of his prickly personality.

Following the e-voting fiasco, Cullen became seen as the minister who couldn't get anything right. In 2003 he challenged Micheal Martin's proposed smoking ban by claiming that as a 40-a-day man it would be impossible to implement, another judgment that has proved to be spectacularly wrong.


When Bertie Ahern switched him to a new job in 2004, it was reportedly with the words: "You're getting f**king transport and don't f**k me up with the unions. Good luck!" Instead, Cullen carried on picking fights he should have known that he couldn't win. His management of the plan to cut driving test waiting times was another fiasco, while floating the idea of privatising Aer Lingus without cabinet approval earned him a public rebuke from Mary Harney. As for his last two anonymous years in Arts, Sports and Tourism, all you need to know is that the department itself is likely to be scrapped.

Throughout all this controversy, it might have helped if Cullen had shown even a little bit of self-deprecating humour. Instead, he had an unfortunate habit of lapsing into self-pity whenever the going got rough. He recently said that media intrusion was "like being raped every single day", which cost him whatever public sympathy he might have gained.

His departure means the Taoiseach will probably be forced to hold three by-elections on the same day later this year. With FF at a record low, they cannot be optimistic about winning any -- and already the opposition can hardly wait to inflict more humiliation on them at the ballot box.