Fianna Fail rebel 'rump' puts pressure on Cowen
A SMALL disgruntled rump of Fianna Fail backbenchers was last night actively sounding out colleagues to gauge the level of discontent within the party toward Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
The Irish Independent has learned that at least five TDs are doing the rounds to see if there is any appetite among senior figures for a challenge to the Taoiseach.
Senior party sources and other critics of his leadership dismissed the rebel group's efforts to potentially unseat Mr Cowen.
Although their numbers are still small, the rebels are hoping to secure the support of other disenchanted party colleagues.
A number of other TDs also expressed "deep dissatisfaction" with Mr Cowen last night in the wake of his much-criticised cabinet reshuffle.
However, they distanced themselves from actively seeking to undermine his leadership. But some warned it was inevitable that mounting unhappiness with Mr Cowen's leadership would come to a head at some stage.
The rebel backbenchers hoped to orchestrate their campaign behind Mary Hanafin, whose appointment as Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister was widely viewed as a demotion.
One of the dissenters said: "There is a bit of a campaign going to get a group behind Mary Hanafin. It may not happen, but you've always got to expect the unexpected."
However, Ms Hanafin was completely unaware of the rebel TDs' plans and was said to be shocked to learn of the move.
None of the TDs was prepared to go public with their concerns last night.
But the group insists someone should stand against the Taoiseach.
"Cowen has lost it," one of the TDs told the Irish Independent. "I'll put it this way -- if there is a runner, there'll be a race. He is completely detached from the parliamentary party."
However, one of Mr Cowen's closest cabinet colleagues, newly promoted Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Minister Batt O'Keeffe, said there was no chance of a move against the Taoiseach.
"I don't envisage any heave," he said. "I think that Brian Cowen has the confidence of the vast majority of Fianna Fail members. They understand the dilemma the Government is in."
The rebel TDs are a mix of Fianna Fail backbenchers traditionally critical of Mr Cowen and other younger TDs who say they will support someone who stands against the Taoiseach if a strong candidate emerges.
"People are looking to protect their seats and they have nothing to lose now," one of the younger TDs told the Irish Independent.
The internal criticism came as Mr Cowen was facing a storm of condemnation from opposition TDs over the reshuffle and plans to radically shake up scandal-hit state training agency FAS. During heated exchanges in the Dail, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said the Taoiseach "does not have a clue".
Plans to move responsibility for FAS to two government departments were also branded a shambles after Mr Cowen admitted the process would be held up because new legislation needed to be drafted.
Meanwhile, just 30 to 40 Fianna Fail TDs and senators turned up at a parliamentary party meeting yesterday.
Some attributed the low turnout to apathy from TDs following the conservative reshuffle. But others insisted it was due to the fact that the meeting had been rescheduled from the previous evening.
Many members would have had pre-arranged engagements, some TDs claimed.
The issue of a reshuffle was not raised at the meeting, where Mr Cowen was present, because the disgruntled TDs said there was no point in doing so.
"What's the point in raising it," another asked.
"We weren't consulted before, this deal with the Greens was foisted upon us, so we're not going to be listened to now.
"The lads who were brought in, Pat Carey and Tony Killeen, are very competent and deserved it but there a lot of people who could be pushed out. There are a lot of disgruntled people there who are now looking for a home, who are looking for someone to identify with," the TD added, indicating the rebel TDs were looking for a leader.
Another TD said some of Mr Cowen's allies -- dubbed the 'bar lobby' -- were unhappy after the reshuffle. "There's no one that's happy," the TD said. "Even some of the bar lobby are annoyed at this stage."
Yet another said: "I think TDs will feel more liberated to speak more freely now and I think you might see a breakdown in discipline."