FF troops jump to aid of 'hoarse' leader
FIANNA Fail ministers yesterday attempted to blame Fine Gael for "generating" a controversy as they trooped out in defence of embattled Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
The intervention by senior ministers such as Mary Hanafin, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Micheal Martin was critical for the Taoiseach's leadership in what was an embarrassing and damaging day for him and his party.
Shortly after Mr Cowen's disastrous radio interview, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said he was "astounded" a controversy had arisen out of the Taoiseach's "tone of voice". Mr Dempsey insisted Mr Cowen's under-par performance did not raise any questions about his leadership.
He laid the blame at the door of Fine Gael and the party's frontbench spokesman Simon Coveney who, he claimed, had helped "generate" the controversy for political gain.
Immediately after the radio interview, Mr Coveney wrote on Twitter that Mr Cowen sounded "halfway between drunk and hungover".
But Mr Dempsey insisted he was simply "hoarse".
Asked if Mr Cowen should have stayed up so late, Mr Dempsey said he was "not going to start being a babysitter for the Taoiseach".
He added: "The Taoiseach is a big boy, he's well able to handle himself, and this occasion here is serious business . . . there's a social side to the evening and I think everybody's entitled to some socialisation."
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern also claimed an "opposition agenda" was to blame for the controversy.
He also blamed Mr Cowen's poor performance on "nasal congestion".
Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin also insisted he had "no difficulties" at all with the Taoiseach's interview.
"Of course, the Taoiseach was very hoarse during the interview, that was very self-evident and very clear. But it seems to me that that's what the issue now seems to be about, that the Taoiseach was hoarse," Mr Martin said.
He also criticised Mr Coveney -- his constituency colleague in Cork South Central -- claiming he was "very very surprised" at the Fine Gael TD's remarks on Twitter.
Responding to queries about the Taoiseach's drinking, Mr Martin said there was always a social dimension to think-ins -- but "nothing more than that".
"Are you seriously suggesting that any person can't have a drink on an evening after a day's conference?" Mr Martin asked.
Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin insisted the Taoiseach had given "very clear and coherent answers".
She said Mr Cowen was being criticised for simply being "hoarse" and "groggy".
Defence Minister Tony Killeen partly blamed the Taoiseach's performance on the noisy backdrop for the RTE interview, in a studio but near the restaurant in the Ardilaun Hotel where the party was holding its two-day think-in.
Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv last night admitted he did not hear his leader's controversial radio performance. But he rejected suggestions the Taoiseach's image had suffered as a result.
"I do not see he has been damaged by this event," he said.
Mr O Cuiv said he had not heard the interview because he was listening to Radio na Gaeltachta at the time.
Fianna Fail backbenchers were also supportive of the Taoiseach, but some blamed their party press office for allowing Mr Cowen to do the interview.
Backbenchers claimed that other senior ministers should have been put forward for the interview.
Some TDs privately conceded the day-long controversy had been "hugely damaging" and created a "certain perception" which they could do without.
One Dublin-based TD said the whole debacle was "embarrassing", coming so soon after the Croke Park gaffe when Mr Cowen accidentally lit a cigarette in a no-smoking area.
Westmeath-Longford TD Mary O'Rourke said Mr Cowen had been hoarse, but was otherwise "quite forceful" in his delivery.
Junior minister Dick Roche claimed the Taoiseach's comments were being analysed by people in Fine Gael who were "biased". His junior ministerial colleague Sean Haughey said Mr Cowen had sounded a "bit groggy", but insisted this was understandable as he had a cold.