There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. It's a phrase that Brian Cowen has overused in the past nine days as he fought to stay on as Fianna Fáil leader. Finally, he did the right thing yesterday, but not before Ireland's political maelstrom was played out to an incredulous audience at home and abroad – those very strangers on whose kindness this insolvent country now rests.
The incompetence, dysfunction and contempt for the will of the people the coalition government has displayed for the past two weeks has dishonoured this country and its political institutions. We should not have been subjected to it and the 30th Dáil is ending not a moment too soon.
The Taoiseach has lost all authority, even among his most ardent supporters. The coalition partners are calling each other liars in public. The end is as undignified as all the other debacles, from 'Garglegate' to the EU/IMF bailout that occurred on the Taoiseach's watch.
His explanation about it being his "prerogative" to appoint cabinet ministers to gain party electoral advantage is another sign of the mindset of a man who has been so long a senior Fianna Fáil party member holding high office that he has, quite rationally in his own mind, conflated the boundaries that divide the two. He talked all week of respect for the institutions of state, yet he showed the people nothing but contempt by dragging out his resignation as Fianna Fáil leader until the eleventh hour.
And nothing much has changed. His speech announcing his resignation talked of casting off the shroud of negativity and of giving hope to young people without any acknowledgement of his own contribution or that of his government to this state of affairs. He is still not looking back with regret.
He now believes he should remain on as Taoiseach, while Fianna Fáil elects a new leader – the very confusion that so many Fianna Fáil TDs baulked at when they supported Cowen in his motion of confidence just six days ago. Fianna Fáil is finished with him but the country has to endure seven weeks more.
A resignation of both roles would be welcome, as would the earlier general election it would trigger.
The Taoiseach's instinct until now has been to come out fighting. Given the hostility with which he answered some media questions yesterday, this, rather than a period of statesmanlike leadership, looks like the pattern until 11 March. His defence of his actions last Friday, just a day after his humiliating climbdown, that it was "my entitlement and right as I saw it, based on the conventions of coalition governments, to put my team into the field for the fighting of this next election", put terror into the hearts of most Fianna Fáil TDs standing in the election. Yesterday, he continued arguing that the move to appoint six new ministers was a "sensible" political act and not a cynical stunt.
But as much as Cowen's decision to "refresh" his cabinet was for electoral gain, the Green Party's objection to it was equally self-interested. Few but their most loyal supporters will see much nobility in the impotent pomposity of their latest "principled" protest.
At this stage, they have waved the flag of "ethics" and "honour" far too many times. From the night of the bank guarantee, to the disastrous handling of the banking collapse, there have been many occasions when the supposedly high-minded Greens could have resigned as a matter of honour. The latest occasion was when the government lost control of our national sovereignty and called the IMF in – while ministers openly lied to a concerned public.
Neither side has shown much integrity in any of this. The Greens insist they must stay in power in order to pass the finance bill "in the national interest". Yet we now learn that Brian Lenihan has changed the bill and put a stay on the abolition of the property-based tax incentives that fuelled the disastrous property bubble until an impact survey is completed. Any action on that front will now be left to the new government. Where is the Green anti-developer, pro-good planning voice of opposition here?
At the same time, there are no qualms in implementing the €1-an-hour drop in the minimum wage and the cuts in social welfare. There are no moves to initiate an impact survey on the consequences of raising taxes and charging a universal levy on the incomes of homeowners in negative equity facing interest rate increases. Where is there any sign of principle or fairness there?
The prophecies of doom should the finance bill not be passed can easily be dealt with by the new government. Both Fine Gael and Labour admit they would like to see changes. And so would the people of this country. But both parties have said they will be practical. Their room for manoeuvre is limited anyway, given our IMF/EU/ECB obligations.
Meanwhile, the country watches with a mixture of delight and disbelief at the breathtaking meltdown of what was once the most powerful political party in this country. The party now can only count on winning 11 safe seats. Of course, it may well secure more on election day. But there is a real possibility that Sinn Féin could be the largest opposition party in the Dáil.
Now there is a vista for voters to consider and a legacy for Brian Cowen to ponder.