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Andrew Lynch: O'Dea r

If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Willie O'Dea made his reputation as a tough political street-fighter, always quick with a cruel joke whenever an opponent got into trouble. His Mighty Mouse image served him well for a long time, but it left him with nowhere to turn when his big mouth finally went too far.

Cabinet resignations don't happen very often in Irish politics (the last one was Ray Burke, as far back as 1997). So it's hardly surprising that the high drama of the last 24 hours has left everyone in Leinster House feeling a little shell-shocked.

Fianna Fail are devastated by the loss of one of their doughtiest performers, Fine Gael are jubilant at the vindication of their decision to make the running on the issue and the Greens have finally woken up to what they can achieve when they put their minds to it.

As a man who devoted virtually every waking moment to politics (he's even been known to canvass on Christmas Day), Willie O'Dea will be a seriously unhappy man today. Brian Cowen, however, won't be far behind. The Taoiseach has just lost one of his best friends in the cabinet, a regular drinking buddy who would have been in line for a big promotion (possibly to Mary Coughlan's job).

The situation has eerie parallels with the sacking of Brian Lenihan senior during the 1990 presidential election, when the PDs forced Charlie Haughey to sack his defence minister and old pal in order to avoid a general election.

As a young backbencher at the time, Cowen was disgusted by what he saw as Haughey's cowardice and famously remarked of the PDs: "If in doubt, leave them out." Now he realises that when a junior coalition partner is holding a gun to your head, painful personal sacrifices have to be made.

So is there anything at all the Taoiseach can do to salvage something from this debacle? Simple -- take the opportunity to carry out the cabinet reshuffle he's been muttering about for so long and make it far more radical than anyone expects.

Just as you should never change a winning team, you should always change a losing one -- and a ministerial facelift would give the government its best chance of moving on from Williegate as quickly as possible.

To do this, Cowen first needs to clear out the deadwood. Martin Cullen, Eamon O Cuiv and Noel Dempsey are clearly past their sell-by dates, while Mary Harney should be politely thanked for her five years in the Department of Health but told that it's just not working out any more.

That would create five vacancies, leaving plenty of room for talented junior ministers and backbenchers to be given their first break -- and, most importantly, it would give the Taoiseach's internal enemies something else to talk about.

Of course, a mass reshuffle would be a risk that goes against every conservative instinct in Cowen's body (which is one reason why the odds are it won't happen). The question he should be asking himself, however, is what exactly has he got to lose? He should also remember that he himself was promoted straight into the cabinet from the backbenches at the tender age of 32, a huge gamble by Albert Reynolds that was ultimately vindicated.

Whoever ends up sitting around the new cabinet table, the atmosphere will be very different. The more diehard FF ministers will not easily forgive John Gormley for pushing their man off the edge, even though the reality is that he would have had to jump anyway.

The Greens, meanwhile, have finally copped on to the fact that securing regular victories over FF is the key to their long-term survival.

The political year got off to a quiet start. Thanks to George Lee, Deirdre de Burca and Willie O'Dea, events since then have more than made up for it. The mood in Government Buildings is now more jittery than ever -- and unless Brian Cowen gets a grip this weekend, the next resignation could be the most dramatic of all.


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