What a difference a year has made for Peter Robinson and Brian Cowen.
The First Minister was reduced to a pale shadow of himself in January, but now has a new spring in his step. The Taoiseach has hit so many fences in 2010 that his race appears to be run even before he reaches the final furlong in the New Year.
Embattled as Cowen is and Robinson has been, both leaders have displayed one great political instinct — brass-necked bottle.
Cowen and his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, continue to show a stoic refusal to pander to the court of public opinion even as they stand handcuffed in the dock.
Like Robinson, the Taoiseach has been counted down and out by the media, but still survives. Cowen must shoulder the blame for the Republic’s collapse because he was in power when the banking system hit the buffers, but I doubt very much if any of his political rivals would have done any better.
The prospect of a weak-kneed coalition of the two main opposition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, dealing with this crisis is as frightening as the remote possibility that Brian Cowen will remain in power.
Peter Robinson has defied the political odds stacked against him since the scandal surrounding his wife Iris and the ignominy of losing his Westminster seat in May.
Since the summer he has reinvented himself and reasserted some authority. Robinson has played the part of the Comeback Kid, noticeably tempering his abrasive, combative attitude in media interviews and after-dinner speeches in the run-up to the weekend party conference.
No one has emerged to challenge him. No one in the DUP has displayed his pursuit of political power with the same determined, tenacious, unswerving conviction. His leadership was never put to the test when he was under pressure because no one appeared to have the courage or requisite talents to confront him and win.
Nigel Dodds has the political weight and experience, but lacks the charisma of leadership. Arlene Foster, in spite of her appointment as a temporary First Minister during the Robinson family trauma, remains an apprentice-in-waiting.
Ian Paisley Jnr, another potential alternative to Robinson, has come up in the world as a Westminster MP. He may well believe his day will come, but hardly for some time yet.
The party leader has survived because he represents the body politic of the Democratic Unionists. He is the principal author of the party’s transformation from fundamental Paisleyism to mainstream unionism.
He has yet to leave a memorable mark on the office of First Minister, but has an opportunity in the weeks ahead.
The compilation of the spending cuts budget is the biggest test facing him and the Stormont Executive — especially as the conflicting economic policies of the principal parties spell deadlock. Will he be remembered as First Minister for the family scandal from which he rallied so defiantly in 2010? How will he be viewed next May by the voters of East Belfast who rejected him recently? Only time and Peter Robinson’s performance in the next six months will tell.
As for Brian Cowen’s fate, some narrow-minded northerners may say it matters not what happens to him, or the south.
The reality is that it does matter. No man is an island in today’s world. The dreadful plight of the south is a wake-up call for us all.
Rather than drive any further wedge between how we live our lives up here and they down there, I suspect this crisis will actually enhance mutual understanding between the two parts of this island and between the Irish and the British.
It is only at crisis times such as now that we may actually begin |to fathom the depths of inter-dependency between the Republic, Great Britain and Northern |Ireland.
Perhaps more people down south will come to their senses and realise that, much as they once saw their destiny with continental Europe, they would be much better to bind themselves closer to communities of the neighbouring lands and islands around them. The pity is that |the Republic went its separate way and joined the then Common Market.
Only now are the dangers becoming evident for such a small country dabbling in such a large pool — from the loss of Irish sovereignty to the inability to escape the economic strait-jacket into which all EU countries must fit.