WHAT a difference five years can make. Exactly five years ago today, on 27 September 2004, the Irish Independent published a brief assessment of then minister for social and family affairs Mary Coughlan's first two years in office.
The piece noted that Coughlan was "regarded as an effective conciliator who is able to use her 'wee Donegal lass' persona to good effect. Because she has not been in cabinet long, the jury is still out on just how effective a performer she is. She has not done anything radical and daring with her brief, but has not done anything wrong either. A steady pair of hands."
Five years on and the jury has returned from its deliberations and the "steady pair of hands" description has been thrown out the window.
Whether it is fair or not, one of the friendliest politicians in Leinster House (with the heartiest laugh in politics) has been dubbed 'Calamity Coughlan' after her 15-month tenure as Tánaiste, which has been dogged with a litany of gaffes and controversies.
Her most notable early gaffe came shortly after the celebratory bonfires went out in Donegal South West. Not once but twice, Coughlan mistakenly made the false claim that larger EU member states are entitled to two EU commissioners. Given that she had much prior experience of EU negotiations for farmers when she was agriculture minister, this was an avoidable slip up. She soon disappeared from the 'Yes' campaign and has taken a back seat in the current campaign.
Budgets are not the Tánaiste's forte. In the fiasco that ensued after Brian Lenihan's first budget last October she made one of her more tactless moves when she told backbenchers it would be "disrespectful" to the Taoiseach Brian Cowen if they criticised the abolition of medical cards for over 70s. Joe Behan, who left the party during that fiasco, wrote in his resignation letter to Cowen, "I found that warning to be insulting in the extreme."
The medical-card fiasco was still at boiling point when she told the Dáil, "I ask for the indulgence of the House, given that we need clarity on this issue. Of the savings of €100m, €86m is for GPs and €30m is for pharmacists!"
Coughlan is a colour-writer's dream, and one Leinster House journalist refers to her as "the gift that keeps on giving". So her decision to be photographed behind the counter of a McDonald's fast-food outlet in March provided much fodder for her critics.
In fairness to the Tánaiste, her attendance at the launch of the McDonald's staff training centre also showed her laudable humility.
Later in March, she was criticised for upsetting cancer-services campaigners in the north-west. Mincing her words she appeared to imply patients would have survived if a planned centralised cancer-treatment facility had been available.
In another minor gaffe, she also said, "There will be no supplementary budget", five days before the announcement of the emergency mini-budget in April.
Whatever about her various verbal gaffes, one of the most damaging controversies the Tánaiste has been involved in was the John McGuinness affair in April.
Cowen's decision to reshuffle his junior ministers saw McGuinness sacked from his role and ignited a public spat between McGuinness and Coughlan, the minister for enterprise, trade and employment. Just days after his sacking McGuinness went on The Late Late Show and explained how he had told the Tánaiste to her face "I have no confidence in your ability." McGuinness issued a statement to the press during the controversy that followed and he recounted details of the meeting where his comments were made.
Even though Coughlan denied McGuinness made such comments to her in person, her authority was clearly damaged by the episode that garnered blanket media coverage.
There is a feeling in Leinster House that Coughlan has unfairly become a figure of fun with the media, partly because of her gender.
That said, after a quiet summer, the Tánaiste's gaffes have come thick and fast in recent weeks. In an interview with Raidio na Gaeltachta two weeks ago she referred to Fianna Fáil's coalition colleagues as "na glasraí", which means 'the vegetables' in Irish.
Speaking at an IDA Innovation Ireland launch two weeks ago she came in for much criticism when she credited Albert Einstein for his work on evolution, when it was clearly Charles Darwin she meant.
She also told the Dáil last week that the cabinet had not met, a day after she had chaired a cabinet meeting in the absence of Cowen, who was at a UN meeting in New York.
This weekend Coughlan is at the centre of another political storm over former Fás chief executive Rody Molloy's 'golden handshake'. She approved the payment worth almost €1.1m without taking legal advice.
Coughlan and Cowen had both previously claimed the threat of legal action from Molloy was the main reason for agreeing the massive settlement.
When Cowen appointed her Tánaiste, Coughlan was carried shoulder high across the Leitrim border into Donegal and the headline in one local paper proclaimed, "Mary one step closer to becoming Taoiseach."
Just months later, Fine Gael's Leo Varadkar had dubbed her "Ireland's Sarah Palin".
As time goes by Mary has taken many giant leaps away from ever becoming Taoiseach.