A stroke too far
- Election called for March 11 after bungled reshuffle
- Breakdown in relations between FF and Greens
- Backbench fury as Cowen faces new leadership crisis
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen's leadership was back on the line last night after his attempted Cabinet reshuffle backfired spectacularly -- forcing him to call an early general election for March 11.
Mr Cowen's bungled effort to replace half of his ministers prompted renewed calls for him to resign as leader of Fianna Fail, with ministers openly discussing his position with backbenchers.
The Green Party told Mr Cowen it was going to walk out of Government if he proceeded with his plan -- and the party had even drafted a statement of resignation.
After being forced to make the most humiliating climbdown of his career, Mr Cowen was accused by the Opposition of trying to pull a "stroke" by promoting his own TDs ahead of the election.
The complete breakdown in relations between Fianna Fail and the Greens saw both blame each other for the debacle.
In a series of astonishing political events that rocked the coalition and caused irreparable damage to Mr Cowen:
* The Dail had to be suspended for two hours.
* Mr Cowen and Mr Gormley held three crisis meetings.
* Green Party TDs and senators discussed pulling out of government.
* A Constitutional controversy emerged with questions over who was Justice Minister.
* Mr Cowen had to strike a compromise deal to prevent an immediate election.
* Five Fianna Fail cabinet ministers were given double jobs.
* Mr Cowen announced the date of the general election; l Fianna Fail and the Greens clashed over the causes of the crisis.
* Fianna Fail ministers and TDs openly discussed Mr Cowen's leadership.
Mr Cowen's plans for a risky pre-election reshuffle spectacularly blew up in his face when the junior coalition partners threatened to walk out of Government.
The coalition partners disagreed strongly on the talks between the parties over the previous 36 hours, where the replacement of ministers was discussed.
The Greens claimed they insisted at all times that they were opposed to ministers being replaced.
But Fianna Fail said the Greens had not objected to the proposed reshuffle when told about it on Wednesday and had baulked yesterday morning.
The Taoiseach was adamant he simply wanted to renew the Fianna Fail line-up of ministers ahead of the election.
He openly attacked the Greens for denying him the right to pick the ministers to represent his own party.
But Mr Gormley said the Greens had told Mr Cowen they were not willing to support the reshuffle with the strong message: "This is not a good idea, it would send out all the wrong signals, the Irish people are suffering and are furious, and this would be the final insult."
His party colleague, Communicaitons Minister Eamon Ryan, told Mr Cowen to his face in a meeting that the Greens were going to walk out of government.
Just two days after his position was endorsed by the party through a motion of confidence victory, Mr Cowen now faces a renewed crisis in his leadership.
Even some of Mr Cowen closest allies deserted him yesterday after his disastrous attempt to promote six party members to the Cabinet.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny described the affair as a "calamity". "It is the last days of a desperate Government," he said.
"I have never seen anything as bad as this in my 35 years in Dail Eireann," he added.
His party's finance spokesman compared the debacle to the GUBU-era of Charlie Haughey in the 1980s.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore accused Mr Cowen of a cynical attempt to cling to power.
"The Taoiseach attempted a stroke and it backfired," he said.
"As a result he has now ended up as a Taoiseach without authority," he added.
Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said Fianna Fail and the Greens deserved to be devastated in the election.
The Government has pledged to stay on to pass the Finance Bill, which will be published today, in order to enact the measures outlined in Budget 2011.
Mr Cowen will dissolve the Dail in the middle of February to allow the election to be held on Friday, March 11.
Mr Cowen had to assign the vacant ministerial posts, prompted by six resignations in two days, to his remaining ministers.
Tanaiste Mary Coughlan will take on the health portfolio, on top of her education brief.
Former Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe became the latest minister to announce his resignation and that he would not be running in the General Election.
His standing down from Cabinet followed an exodus the previous day involving Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen.
Micheal Martin resigned after failing in his bid to oust Mr Cowen from the Fianna Fail leadership earlier in the week.
Mr Cowen had to respond to criticism that his failed cabinet reshuffle was a stroke that had backfired.
"I challenge the politically correct view that suggests that it was a stunt; far from it," he said.
The Taoiseach defended his right to carry out a cabinet reshuffle -- as it became clear that he did not have the support of his Green Party coalition partners.
"Members will also be aware that under the Constitution, the Taoiseach has the prerogative to appoint members to his government," he said.