Brian Cowen: he must attempt to shape events rather than chase them

One of the first decisions Brian Cowen made on assuming office turned out to be one of his best. When Cowen appointed Brian Lenihan as minister for finance in his new cabinet in May 2008, it came as something of a surprise.

Lenihan had been a dark horse for the job. He had only been elevated to full cabinet minister less than a year previously. Few thought that he would overtake other contenders like Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin in the reckoning.

But Cowen knew what he was doing. Lenihan's extraordinary ability was well known, but the new finance minister also had clean hands. Lenihan hadn't been sitting at the cabinet table during the years when Bertie Ahern peddled his ruinous invention of neo-liberal faux socialism.

Now Cowen needs to revive the imagination that prompted him to appoint Lenihan. The fate that has befallen Lenihan makes it vital that there is some fresh talent brought into the cabinet as soon as possible. If the last 18 months has taught Cowen anything, it is surely that he must attempt to shape events rather than chase them.

It is testament to Lenihan's ability that he is now so important to the short-term future of the country. You don't have to agree with his politics to salute his ability, both to command a daunting brief, and to communicate it to the public.

His interaction with the media tells it all. Unlike most senior politicians, he doesn't endure engagement. He revels in it, grabbing every interview as an opportunity to convey what he and the government are about. He gives the impression of desperately wanting to persuade you to his point of view, with a passion which, despite being the bread and butter of politics, is rare enough in this country.

The markets apparently like him. The public obviously does. He is perceived to have integrity, at a time when such an attribute is at a premium.

It's a remarkable achievement when you consider that last month he delivered a budget of savage cuts that didn't spare the most vulnerable, and failed to spread the load fairly. If there was an election in the morning, there is little doubt that Lenihan's standing allied to sympathy for his current plight would reap serious dividends at the ballot box.

The national interest is another matter. At a time of crisis, it is unhealthy that so much is invested in one individual. The man has a serious illness, and while everybody is rooting for him, the treatment may at some time in the coming months require him to step aside, even temporarily. Then we have a problem. Who could fill his shoes?

Let's face it, if half of the remainder of the cabinet were to announce in the morning that they were leaving politics to join a religious cult, the country would manage to carry on without too much disruption.

If the other half let it be known they were going to grow their hair and run off with a bunch of eco warriors, we'd survive. The pair of Green ministers might be missed, but the rest are far from irreplaceable. It's not that they are incompetent, give or take the odd Martin Cullen. It's just that they don't inspire, even to the extent that Lenihan appears to.

In the event of Lenihan stepping aside, the field of runners would most likely consist of Ahern, Martin and Noel Dempsey. All three have been in government since 1997. All three look jaded. They sat on their hands while Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy – and subsequently Cowen – ran riot.

Martin is perceived to be less than decisive in decision making, a chip off the Bertie block. Transport minister Dempsey was on holidays last week, 10 days into a big freeze that has crippled transport.

Ahern would possibly be the favourite for the job if Lenihan stepped aside. Last June, Ahern told the Law Gazette that politics was about putting bread on the table.

"It's a job," he said. "It's very hard to get out of politics once you're in it, even if you wanted to get out… ultimately there's an element that it puts bread on the table. I would have to find a job elsewhere and it's probably a bit difficult nowadays."

He doesn't sound exactly like a man champing at the bit to lead his country out of perdition.

Mary Harney has equal seniority in cabinet, but she is not of the party, looks like a beaten docket, and her fingerprints are all over the mess we're in.

Another name whispered is Willie O'Dea. Willie is a great man to send out to defend the indefensible. But would anybody take him serious as the economy's tillerman?

The only minister currently acquitting herself with the standards of competence and communication befitting a senior cabinet postholder is Mary Hanafin. That is not necessarily saying much about her ability, but it says a lot about where the rest of them are at right now.

There are enough unknown unknowns as we face into another year that is destined to be cruel. Nama is an unknown unknown, as are the balance sheets of the banks. The prospect of Lenihan remaining in robust health is an unknown unknown.

A near future without him at the tiller is to be feared, but provision must be made for its occurrence.

New blood needs to be introduced to the cabinet as soon as possible. Under the prevailing circumstances, a reshuffle can't wait until the summer.