Late on Wednesday night right as the confidence debate on Bertie Ahern drew to a close we learned a lot about the leader of Fianna Fail.
He rose to his feet and spoke for a little over five minutes. But that's all we needed, nothing more. For in the course of a magnificent, spontaneous, and from-the-heart contribution we witnessed an immense force, an outburst of deeply impressive moral authority that is rare in an age like this.
The leader of Fianna Fail we are talking about is of course the next one, the anointed one, and not the current one.
Brian Cowen was magnificent on Wednesday and once again - as he has done all year - he recovered the situation when Bertie Ahern found himself in crisis. With Cowen, to quote Beethoven, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.
The recipe for Ahern's own speech earlier was a little less ambitious. It contained a couple of tablespoons of lemon zest. For its clear bitterness lingered in his mouth for that hours that he sat silently fuming as as the opposition branded him as a liar.
Cowen sat beside Ahern for the duration of the broadside against him, giving an air of a man who was weary of listening to all the platitude and cliché. For FFers, that was a big thing, a demonstration of Cowen's loyalty to the organisation, and, by extension, to its leader.
But when his turn came, he quickly departed from the script to give a sermon on political values and on morality. Cowen quickly branded the opposition as hypocrites and opportunists. In doing so, he made the credible argument that they had only discovered high standards and morality after the election. Before polling day, he argued, they back-pedalled from BertieGate more quickly than a professional cyclist on dope, because they knew that by taking him on on this issue was like walking straigt into a haymaker in the first round.
The general point of Cowen's was the default position of all the Government parties that day. To wit: "The Tribunal will be the arbiter. If we are to avoid arbitrary justice let the Tribunal proceed with its deliberations," he said.
Green leader John Gormley also used this argument. But you have to understand that he had no choice. When the Greens agreed to Government, they understood that it entailed a Mephistophelean deal. They knew, they just knew, that their condemnation of Fianna Fail's dubious moral compass in the run-up to the election would be rendered hollow. Gormley may have quibbled with the nuances of the Fianna Fail countermotion to Enda Kenny's motion of no confidence. But that was sophistry. The Green Party - for not the first time and not the last time - had to swallow hard and back the Government, even though they knew it meant a demeaning compromise.
The most potent moment of Cowen's speech came when he lectured his adversaries the following thought: "I know right from wrong".
It was utterly believable, utterly compelling. And it made his case as a natural leader for his party. What we witnessed was a person who was the personification of the heart and soul of his party and what it represents and stands for. The problem, from a Fianna Fail perspective, is that the jury is out on whether or not his boss stands for that, and if he can distinguish between those relative values of right and wrong.
Later on Wednesday night, I spoke to a couple of TDs who would consider themselves Cowen's most ardent supporters. And they spoke about his speech that night in much the same way as Kerry supporters spoke about Colm Cooper's magic in the All Ireland final. The other pretenders - Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan (Micheal Martin was playing an away fixture in the US this week) - all made perfunctory and pedestrian speeches during the debate. But Cowen in an unscripted and spontaneous way rose to the occasion, found the perfect pitch and tone, as he had done during Fianna Fail's darkest moments of the election campaign.
There's been a lot of old guff about the disconnect between us anoraks and Joe Public on this issue. I'm sorry but it's my belief that Bertie Ahern, the most successful Irish politician since the utterly unique Eamon de Valera, is now damaged goods, with serious questions surrounding his credibility.
A very senior Green politician to whom I spoke on Wednesday night offered the opinion that Ahern will step down during the Christmas recess. I don't believe it will happen that early, just as I don't belive that Ahern will stay on until he is 60.
Cowen loyalists at a senior level want Ahern to step down prior to the European elections in less than two years time. Like Gordon Brown, they believe the Tánaiste will need time to impose his imprint upon FF before the next General Election in 2012. Unlike Gordon Brown though, Cowen's loyalists do not necessarily speak on his behalf. For them, there is an element of proxy wish fulfilment. Sometimes you feel he is prepared to play the bridesmaid role forever!
Whatever, when he imposed himself on the debate this week, we witnessed a force, a force that's potentially strong enough to win a fourth General Election for Fianna Fail. It's time for him to get off the fence, to identify a date for a painless and seamless succession.
This is my column from Saturday's Irish Examiner