Cowen row has done FF 'real damage' says Lenihan
Finance Minister joins chorus of criticism after RTE interview farce
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is the latest senior minister to criticise Taoiseach Brian Cowen's controversial radio interview and the subsequent political controversy, saying it has done "real damage" and has been an "unwanted distraction".
Although Mr Cowen's ministers rallied to his defence in the immediate aftermath of the interview, Mr Lenihan's criticism is the fourth stinging attack from senior ministers since last Wednesday.
Last night, after a day of calls between party members, Mr Cowen's days as leader appeared to be numbered.
Mr Lenihan, speaking to the Sunday Independent, conceded that the Morning Ireland interview and the subsequent political controversy has been very damaging and has been distracting to the party and to the business of government at such a critical time.
"The Taoiseach apologised to his colleagues over the matter. That shows his assessment that there was damage done here. I agree with that assessment. Yes, it has been damaging and yes, precisely, it has been an unwanted distraction. But look, I'm not going to be drawn any further on this issue."
Mr Lenihan added that the controversy and ongoing speculation over Mr Cowen's position has caused real difficulty in the past week, especially as Ireland's rate of borrowing hit record highs.
"We have more important things to address as a country, far more important. We have seen the nervousness in the financial markets in recent weeks. I am working full time to ensure we bring finality and certainty to the problems at Anglo Irish Bank."
When asked if he retained full confidence in Mr Cowen he said: "I believe Brian Cowen will lead us into the next election and I don't see any change in that."
However, it is clear from conversations with over 25 Fianna Fail Dail deputies, including senior ministers, junior ministers and backbenchers, that Mr Cowen no longer retains the confidence of the majority of the Fianna Fail party, with the majority looking to either Mr Lenihan or Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin to make a stand for the leadership.
Given the slightness of the Government's Dail majority, statements to this newspaper from independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae that they will not support any change of leader without an election means a challenge could force a snap General Election.
For his part, Mr Martin yesterday restated his views that Mr Cowen's Morning Ireland interview was damaging and that "lessons have to be learned".
He said this weekend: "I think we have to really organise ourselves in such a way that matches the mood of the people."
Mr Martin has steadfastly ignored media questions about the FF leadership over the past 48 hours, but said he fully stood over his critical Newstalk interview.
Mr Martin's interview with Ivan Yates marked the beginning of a clear change in the language and tone of ministers, who became more critical as the week progressed.
Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin was perhaps the most critical of all ministers, describing the interview as "awful". She said: "I listened to it and I said to myself 'what are you doing this for? I heard it and I thought it sounded awful. I knew it sounded awful. Not what he was saying but how he was saying it."
She declined to comment further on the leadership speculation yesterday when contacted by the Sunday Independent.
On Friday, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern confirmed that worried TDs had contacted him. He said: "I have spoken to backbenchers and, yes, there are people who are worried about what happened on Tuesday." He refused to be drawn on whether he was likely to mount a challenge against Mr Cowen.