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Andrew Lynch: Let the leadership fight begin - but this time FF must use their heads

The race is on. Brian Cowen may be gone by Christmas or he could stay in charge for another 18 months. But at the end of the Taoiseach's worst week yet, the battle to replace him as Fianna Fail leader has clearly stepped up another gear.

For the 30 or so FF TDs who have been fed up with Cowen for some time, the Morning Ireland debacle was the moment when their patience finally ran out.

As well as the embarrassment of the interview itself, the Taoiseach's feeble attempt to lay the blame on a Fine Gael smear campaign and his eventual half-hearted apology in Government Buildings all added up to the impression of a leader who's no longer fit for purpose.

Meltdown

With the party now facing meltdown at the next general election, a replacement urgently needs to be found -- but, so far, there's no real consensus on who that replacement should be.

If the public could vote on the matter, there's no doubt that Brian Lenihan would be the overwhelming favourite. As a media performer the Minister for Finance is light years ahead of his boss, for the simple reason that he always sounds like a man who knows exactly what he's doing.

The irony is that the more money he takes out of people's pockets, the more popular he seems to get.

Lenihan is also widely admired across the political spectrum for the courage and dignity he has shown in his fight against pancreatic cancer.

Until we know a lot more about his medical condition, however, there must be a huge question mark over whether he is able to take on the challenges of the biggest job of all.

Barbed

As Cowen has discovered to his cost, the public scrutiny of a Taoiseach is both relentless and unforgiving -- which means that only somebody in the full of their health should even think about putting themselves forward.

If not Lenihan, then who? The clear second favourite is Micheal Martin, whose barbed criticisms of his leader this week suggest that he's more than ready to step into his shoes.

If the public are fed up with a slovenly Taoiseach who sounds hungover on morning radio, then a clean-cut smoothie who eats muesli and yoghurt for breakfast might be a refreshing alternative.

Martin's excellent television performances in last year's Lisbon Treaty referendum proved that his media skills are as good as anyone's.

Some FF TDs are already salivating at the thought of the Cork Choirboy going up against Enda Kenny or Eamon Gilmore in a television debate.

His biggest weakness, however, is a perception that he may not have the necessary steel to take the tough economic decisions that still lie ahead.

Many leadership elections boil down to a two-way fight -- the Dublin candidate versus the rural one. As things stand, Martin will almost certainly be supported by the country wing of the party.

Lenihan currently has the capital's vote sewn up -- but if he drops out for health reasons, then his fellow Dublin TD Mary Hanafin would rocket right into contention.

Hanafin's rocky relationship with Cowen means that she has had a rough couple of years, but her resilience in the face of adversity has been hugely impressive.

On television she comes across as competent and sympathetic, while her gender would make her elevation to the Taoiseach's office a triumph for Mna na hEireann. She also has the backing of Bill Cullen -- and, as host of The Apprentice, he certainly knows a winner when he sees one.

Humiliated

Barring a miracle, one of these three people will be the next leader of FF. Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey might also throw a few shapes, but both should know that they would be beaten in any real contest.

The big question is whether Lenihan, Martin or Hanafin have the courage to challenge Cowen now -- or whether they bottle it and end up as leader of a much weakened opposition instead.

The last time FF got a chance to elect a new leader, they went with their hearts over their heads.

They cannot afford that luxury a second time -- and neither can the country.


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