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Andrew Lynch: Now Cowen can lead his kamikaze troops to a surefire defeat

Do Fianna Fail have a death wish? Last night they wasted their final opportunity to ditch the most unpopular Taoiseach this country has ever had.

The heave against Brian Cowen has ended with no winners, just a lot of losers -- and a party that seems mentally resigned to being slaughtered at the polls in around nine weeks' time.

Although private tallies suggest that Cowen won the vote quite easily, the result was anything but a ringing endorsement of his leadership.

Many of the Taoiseach's supporters openly admitted that they were only ticking his box because they believed it was too close to the general election for a new face to make any real difference.


They also felt that none of the alternative candidates had covered themselves in glory over the last 48 hours -- and on that point at least, it's hard to disagree.

Brian Lenihan has done himself the most damage of all. The Finance Minister calculated that since he had little chance of winning a leadership election this week, his best bet was to back Cowen now and take his chances at a later date.

That was fine as far as it went -- but then he went and spoiled it all by going on RTE radio and boasting that he'd been too busy saving the economy to involve himself in any plot.

To put it politely, that is not how many FF backbenchers remember it. Their private conversations with Lenihan over the last few months left them with the distinct impression that he was gagging for the top job and would be on board as soon as a heave was launched.

They now feel completely let down by a Finance Minister who has turned out to be too clever for his own good -- and who now has a lot of bridges to rebuild if he wants to become a serious contender again.

Mary Hanafin has also let herself down very badly. Never exactly a paid-up member of the Brian Cowen fan club, she spent the last few weeks dropping heavy hints about her willingness to challenge him when the time was right.

Although she is believed to have told him to his face that he had to quit over the weekend, she lacked the courage to come out and say the same thing in public.

On Monday night's Frontline, Hanafin told Pat Kenny that she would make her intentions known before the FF parliamentary party meeting.

In fact, she did no such thing. Instead, she gave a one-minute speech in which she muttered that she would vote "in accordance with my conversation with the Taoiseach" -- and while there are plenty of words to describe that behaviour, 'leadership' isn't one of them.

Ironically, the official loser of last night's contest may have emerged relatively unscathed. Michael Martin's challenge got off to a shaky start, but he managed to conduct himself with dignity and built up some support for a future leadership contest.

If FF do as badly in the general election as the opinion polls suggest, he can at least claim that he was willing to stand up and be counted -- in stark contrast to his rivals this week.

For now, the biggest question is what this result will do for Brian Cowen's self-confidence.

The Taoiseach came out fighting when his own job was on the line, but that will just cause many voters to wonder why he can't apply the same kind of passion to solving the country's problems.


Mary O'Rourke struck a nerve when she compared him to a moody teenager, who briefly sparks into life before storming off to sulk in his bedroom.

FF may be briefly re-energised by the events of the last few days, but it's hard to see this failed leadership heave doing them much good in the long run.

As one of the Taoiseach's opponents said at last night's meeting, there is no way that he can achieve in two weeks what's he's failed to do over the last two years.

Brian Cowen has won a battle, but the real war is just getting under way -- and as far as FF are concerned, that was lost a long time ago.