The public are waiting to pass judgement

After one of the most momentous weeks in Irish politics since the foundation of the state, it looks like we are going to have a general election on Friday, February 25.

After one of the most momentous weeks in Irish politics since the foundation of the state, it looks like we are going to have a general election on Friday, February 25.

It cannot happen soon enough because the debacle of the past week has to be put behind us and we must make a fresh start.

Seldom has such an air of uncertainty pervaded the country. Each day brought new developments, to the extent that it was impossible to predict what might happen over the following twenty four hours.

Even as late as yesterday, when it appeared that the all-party agreement on getting the Finance Bill through the Dail had calmed the waters, came the fear that the bill might not be passed.

That still remains a possibility and a vote of no confidence in the government or the taoiseach could yet spell the end of the present Dail.

It has been a week to forget for taoiseach Brian Cowen. In his worst nightmares he cannot have expected to endure such misery - and it might get worse.

If the polls are to be believed then Fianna Fail are facing a meltdown in the election, with some suggestions that the survival of the party may be at risk.

Mr Cowen will no longer be party leader by then but the damage was caused on his watch and he will be remembered for that. The party has faced serious difficulties before, going back to the Arms Crisis of the 1970s, but nothing has shaken it to its core as much as the developments of the recent weeks and months.

The economic collapse followed by the IMF bail-out has shattered the nation's confidence. That in itself was enough to suggest a black day for Fianna Fail at the polls.

But the past week's events have hit the party even more - and the leadership they needed wasn't there.

Brian Cowen is a FF man to the core but that proved more of a handicap than a blessing last week.

As he battled to save his own job as party leader and taoiseach - and save his government into the bargain - the public perception was that his concern was more for the party than the country.

It may have been an unfair assumption about a politician who has always been described as honourable and with the country's best interests at heart but public perception is crucial - especially approaching an election.

His motion of confidence in himself smacked of desperation. At a time when the country needed leadership he was phoning his TDs to see if they supported him.

They did but not for long. Following his bungled attempt at a cabinet reshuffle just weeks before an election, following the mass resignation of ministers, the anger among the public was matched by that of the Fianna Fail party.

They saw it as a step too far by the taoiseach and the message must have made its way to his office as he announced his resignation as leader of Fianna Fail the next day - although he was staying on as taoiseach.

That in itself was a bizarre move as the public perception again was that he wasn't good enough to be leader of his party but he was good enough to be leader of the country.

Of course it was also a step too far for the Greens who pulled out of government within another twenty four hours - a day didn't go by without a hugely significant development.

If they hadn't realised it at the time, any political observer could have told the Greens that their relationship with Fianna Fail would have ended in tears - as all coalitions involving Fianna Fail do.

The benefit of the Greens' departure is that it should bring forward the election day - although there is still uncertainty on the date as the Finance Bill is debated in the Dail.

The experience of the past week would suggest that anything could happen again this week. Fianna Fail will have their new leader today so he - or she - can start planning the election campaign. Everyone else is ready - and the country is ready.

Whatever else happens this week, whether the debate on the Finance Bil is over and whether the bill is passed, Brian Cowen must start making plans to head the Aras to dissolve the Dail.

It has run its course and the people are waiting to pass judgement on what they have seen over the past four years.