24 little hours: Cowen with Peter Robinson at the North-South council meeting in Armagh on Friday

WHEN Taoiseach Brian Cowen emerged from Friday's meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Armagh, he was in a defiant mood and he was adamant that he would lead Fianna Fáil into the general election on 11 March.

Despite the previous day's botched cabinet reshuffle, Cowen told reporters: "There was controversy yesterday; yesterday was the past."

So what happened between Cowen's defiant stand shortly before lunchtime on Friday and yesterday's impromptu press conference when he announced that he was going to step down as leader of Fianna Fáil?

Did Cowen get a visit or phone calls from the "men in grey coats"? Did senior party figures issue an ultimatum, saying the future of the party was in jeopardy if he did not jump ship immediately?

Asked at yesterday's press conference which senior party figures had been in touch with him about stepping down, Cowen replied: "I have been in touch with no senior party figures in relation to this. I left the Dáil on Thursday after reassigning the responsibilities to the ministers. Obviously I spoke to a number of them but there were no questions arising out of the issue of the leadership at that time.

"Yesterday I was at the North-South ministerial conference in Armagh and I returned directly home. I have not been in touch with any of my colleagues... In relation to my own position I have taken this decision of my own counsel."

Cowen did speak to his wife Mary and other family members on Friday night but other issues worked against him.

Following Thursday's reshuffle there was open revolt within Fianna Fáil.

"Discipline had completely broken down," according to one party source, with TDs such as Conor Lenihan, John McGuinness and Michael Kennedy all taking to the airwaves to criticise their leader.

But the public utterances of usually reserved and loyal TDs such as Thomas Byrne and Michael McGrath must have made Cowen realise that the game was up.

Micheál Martin's call on Friday for Fianna Fáil TDs to "reflect on the leadership over the coming days" was effectively inviting TDs who had supported Cowen in Tuesday's confidence motion to make a U-turn. And in private, many of those who backed him just two days earlier were saying he had to go.

While government ministers were in Armagh for the North-South ministerial council meeting on Friday, a group of 50 members of the Irish Parliamentary Society (a body for former members of the Oireachtas) were in the Dáil chamber for a discussion on how the House could be made more effective in the future.

One of the people at that meeting was former EU commissioner and Fianna Fáil party grandee Ray MacSharry. He was 'doorstepped' by reporters on Kildare Street as he left the debate and asked for his views on Cowen's leadership.

MacSharry's pointed statement that "a leader had responsibilities to the party" may be translated from Fianna Fáil code to mean: "Cowen needs to step down now to save Fianna Fáil from extinction".

There is no doubt that, as has been the case throughout his political career, Cowen did have regard to his own counsel in deciding to step down as Fianna Fáil leader. But the noises from his party colleagues on the airwaves throughout Friday were ominous.

The fact that no senior party colleagues contacted him on Friday night could also be seen as significant.

All political careers end in failure, and that may be the case for Cowen too. However, one Cowen ally said yesterday: "At least he didn't go over a game of golf with Seánie FitzPatrick". In the context of history that may be important.