Ahern turns up the heat on Cowen
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen's position looked increasingly precarious last night as a cabinet minister confirmed Fianna Fail TDs were contacting senior party figures to express concerns about his leadership.
A string of ministers came out to publicly back Mr Cowen, but several, while expressing their support, also made it clear that the situation within Fianna Fail was serious and volatile.
As the fallout from the Taoiseach's disastrous 'Morning Ireland' interview escalated rather than receded:
- Justice Minister Dermot Ahern admitted "worried" TDs were in touch with him.
- Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin repeated his belief that "lessons had to be learned".
- Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin said people expected senior ministers to be able to communicate properly.
Despite the fallout over the deeply embarrassing party "think-in" in Galway, ministers doggedly stuck to the line yesterday that the Taoiseach had suffered from a "nasal" problem and not from over-drinking.
Yet bizarrely, at the same time they spoke of how Mr Cowen had had "an off-day" and called the interview "an unfortunate incident".
The confusing signals came as Mr Cowen again tried to reassure voters and colleagues there would not be any repeat of his late-night session. But in another inadequate interview performance, he struggled to find the words to restore confidence.
Speaking about his 3.30am debacle in Galway, the Taoiseach said he would be "a bit more cautious in terms of that aspect of how I conduct my social life".
Mr Cowen's efforts to contain criticism of the interview debacle came as the Green Party indicated it would not tolerate another embarrassing episode.
Fianna Fail backbenchers are still angry at the fallout from their leader's performance and some have contacted ministers, including Mr Ahern -- a development that could be very damaging for Mr Cowen.
But showing the damage caused to the Government by the affair, Environment Minister John Gormley admitted the controversy was a distraction from the Coalition's work.
Mr Cowen now faces into a crucial 48-hour period as backbench unhappiness leaves his future on a knife-edge.
After days of denials of party rumblings, Mr Ahern's surprising admission of concerns over this week's events added to the controversy.
"I have spoken to backbenchers since last Tuesday and, yes, obviously there are people, you know, who are worried about what happened on Tuesday. But equally so, I think there is a clear understanding that our situation as a country is too vital and too serious for us to be diverted by, in effect, a party row at this stage," he said on the RTE 'Six One News'.
Ms Hanafin conceded she had questioned why the Taoiseach did the interview when she heard it. "You certainly expect somebody at our level who is giving an interview to be able to communicate properly," she said in Donegal.
Mr Martin again admitted the affair was damaging. "Clearly we have lessons to learn and we will work on . . . future communications strategies," he said.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan also came out in support of Mr Cowen, saying "the matter (was) closed".
Despite expressing confidence in Mr Cowen's leadership, Mr Gormley repeatedly refused to say what he would do if the Taoiseach put in another below-par performance.
He claimed such questions were "hypothetical".
Within Fianna Fail, there was a strong sense Mr Cowen was still under immense pressure. "Everybody is very nervous," a senior party source said.
But a veteran TD said he did not believe a formal heave was in the offing as nobody had been canvassing support for a motion of no confidence. "They'd need to be on to a middle-ground fellah like me if that was happening," the TD said.
Mr Cowen said he would not get involved in speculation about a potential leadership heave in Fianna Fail.
He said he had learned not to be found in a similar position again and would need to leave social functions sooner.
"I think such is the atmosphere of politics today and perhaps the way people tell you things and how things can go off on a tangent very quickly, I'd be more cautious about that aspect of how I conduct my social life," he said.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was critical of the scrutiny politicians were under.
"If we as politicians and as human beings are not allowed to live in this country with the freedom that every person else has it's a very sad day."