Cowen bails out as FF hit 8pc low
Taoiseach resigned as Fianna Fail leader as plotters plan final push
Taoiseach Brian Cowen chose to resign before he was deposed as leader of Fianna Fail in a move that has plunged the party into a leadership contest just seven weeks before the General Election.
There was increasing uncertainty last night over the life of the Government as it faces significant pressures on several fronts.
Given last week's events, the Government is not guaranteed to defeat the two opposition motions of no confidence, even if the Greens remain.
The junior coalition party will decide their position today. If the Government is defeated in either confidence vote, the election date will be brought forward.
Independent TDs Joe Behan and Mattie McGrath said that they would not be in a position to support the Government in such votes. Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae said they were assessing the situation.
Further pressure was placed on the Government by Fine Gael's Michael Noonan, who said his party would support the Finance Bill through all stages of the Dail by Friday, on condition that the Government stood down.
In what amounted to a last-ditch attempt to save Fianna Fail from wipeout in the election, Mr Cowen decided on Friday night to bow to the inevitable and relinquish the leadership -- but only when it became clear to him that he had lost the support of a majority of his TDs.
Former Minister Micheal Martin and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan are now thought to be the only realistic contenders to lead Fianna Fail into the election, scheduled for March 11. Last night, outsiders Eamon O Cuiv and Mary Hanafin also threw their hats in the ring.
Whatever the outcome of the succession race, a crisis-gripped Fianna Fail will be focused this weekend on a Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll, which shows that support for Fianna Fail has fallen to a record low of eight per cent.
Some 70 per cent of respondents said their voting intention would not change if there was a new leader of Fianna Fail, but 22 per cent would be 'more likely' and eight per cent 'less likely' to vote for Fianna Fail in that case.
The poll was taken before Mr Cowen's resignation.
Yesterday's events came after a calamitous week, during which Mr Cowen won a vote of confidence but then lost virtually all of the authority of the office of the Taoiseach.
His decision to resign as Fianna Fail leader but stay on as Taoiseach until the outcome of the election immediately drew the ire of the Opposition.
This day last week, Mr Cowen said that, at a time of political and economic uncertainty, there was a need for clarity about the role and responsibilities of those who held political office.
He said then that he did not agree with the suggestion that he resign as Fianna Fail leader but continue on as Taoiseach, because he did not believe it to be in the country's interest. This is what Mr Cowen said last Sunday: "Having one line of authority as Taoiseach and another as a decision maker as leader of FF is, in my view, not a good idea. It could lead to confusion and dilution of authority for the persons concerned."
Asked about his comment at a press conference yesterday, Mr Cowen said: "We will manage the situation."
Citing this "complete contradiction", Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny yesterday called on Mr Cowen to immediately seek a dissolution of the Dail so that the election could be held without delay.
If Mr Cowen did not do so, he said, Fine Gael would table a motion of no confidence in Mr Cowen as Taoiseach on Tuesday. A Labour motion of no confidence is also to be tabled this week.
Mr Cowen informed the leader of the Green Party, John Gormley, of his decision just 15 minutes before the announcement was publicly made.
Last night, the Greens said their TDs and senators had discussed Mr Cowen's decision to resign as Fianna Fail leader and remain as Taoiseach, adding that they would "meet tomorrow morning to consider the situation".
At this stage, however, it is thought that the Greens would be prepared to go along with the new arrangement, which would see the defeat of the opposition motions.
The Finance Bill, meanwhile, is expected to be passed before the Dail is dissolved three weeks before the election. It is likely the Greens will use the impasse to press for the introduction of legislation to deal with climate change and corporate funding of political parties.
All thoughts in Fianna Fail will now turn to the race to succeed Mr Cowen. Nominations for the leadership must be received before lunchtime tomorrow and the new leader will be elected on Wednesday.
By last night, there were four declared candidates -- Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Mary Hanafin and Eamon O Cuiv. Mr Martin is the clear favourite at the moment, although Mr Lenihan still has considerable support among the TDs, senators and MEPs who will decide on the issue.
Our poll, which was taken on Friday night, before Mr Cowen's resignation, sought opinion on a preferred leader of Fianna Fail. It found: Michael Martin (44 per cent); Brian Lenihan (15 per cent); Mary Hanafin (14 per cent); None of the above (27 per cent).
Support for Mr Martin has grown since his unsuccessful challenge to Mr Cowen last week. When the same question was asked on January 14, the result was: Mr Martin (31 per cent); Mr Lenihan (19 per cent); Ms Hanafin (11 per cent); Others (28 per cent).
Mr Lenihan is expected to press his credentials as a candidate who was not a senior minister during the Celtic Tiger period during which the economy was mismanaged.
Yesterday, he told the Sunday Independent: "I am not at all perturbed by the fact that some deputies have declared their support for Micheal Martin. In my view, the party should not be bounced by public declarations on a secret ballot next Wednesday. What matters in the end is the ballot of the Fianna Fail Dail party."
The Sunday Independent can reveal that if Mr Cowen had not resigned he would have been removed as leader of FF this week by means of two possible scenarios, the second of which would have led to the collapse of the Government and forced an election in just three weeks' time.
It seems Mr Cowen wanted to avoid an immediate election until the Finance Bill is passed, and was therefore forced to bow to the inevitable and resign as leader.
If he had persisted with the view that he should not resign, a quite sensational development might have been brought into play -- a sizeable portion of Fianna Fail deputies were said to be of the view that they would not turn up to vote confidence in the Government on Wednesday night.