A GROUP of ambitious Fianna Fail TDs are to seek a meeting with Tanaiste Brian Cowen when the Dail resumes after Easter to discuss Bertie Ahern's future as Taoiseach, the Sunday Independent has learned.
It is understood that at least five party backbenchers now wish to express their concerns to Mr Cowen following evidence given by Mr Ahern's former constituency secretary at the Mahon Tribunal last Thursday.
Grainne Carruth's startling admission that she lodged sterling sums to Mr Ahern's account at the Drumcondra branch of the Irish Permanent Building Society in the 1990s has sent shockwaves through the Fianna Fail firmament.
Last night, one of the TDs now intent on approaching Mr Cowen spoke of the "real apprehension and concern" on the party's backbenches over Mr Ahern's affairs, and how those concerns had been "heightened" since Ms Carruth's testimony.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent on the strict condition of anonymity, the TD said: "The clock has been ticking on Bertie's leadership. After Thursday, that clock is now ticking much faster."
Commenting on Ms Carruth's appearance before the tribunal last Wednesday and Thursday, the TD said: "The evidence from Ms Carruth was extremely disturbing. Many people within the party organisation here are now saying the game is up [in relation to the Taoiseach's continuing leadership].
"I do find it inconceivable that no one has gone to the gates of Leinster House to call for Bertie to go already, and I include myself in that. What is happening now is like a cancer, and I believe it is only going to get worse, but it is in Brian Cowen's hands. A number of TDs will be speaking to Brian Cowen after the Easter recess about this."
In remarks which illustrated the Tanaiste's current and apparently unassailable position as Mr Ahern's successor, he added: "The only reason no one is coming out and calling for Bertie to go already is Brian Cowen. Every one is taking the line from Brian. Once he says it is time, Bertie will be gone within seven days."
He added that while party members appreciated Mr Cowen was anxious to show political loyalty to the Taoiseach, the time may have come to ask the Taoiseach to go from office.
"Everybody appreciates Brian's handling of the leadership issue. He made a call for political loyalty, but that loyalty has been well and truly tested at this point. Nobody would criticise him if he asked Bertie to go.''
"We know he has to be careful that he doesn't fall victim to 'he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword', but enough time and understanding has been given to Mr Ahern," the TD said.
"There is an enormous residue of goodwill towards Bertie for all that he has done and achieved, but this can't go on. This is being seriously commented on in the party," he added.
Asked if he and his backbench colleagues would be calling formally on Mr Cowen to ask Mr Ahern to stand down, he said: "We will be having a conversation with him to tell him of our concerns. He is very approachable."
Asked if this conversation should be viewed by Mr Cowen as merely a conversation, or as a warning, he added: "He will listen to what we have to say. He would be a fool not to."
That individual TDs may now be coming together to force the issue of Mr Ahern's departure date will cause Mr Cowen some concern. The development comes on the back of public calls by two Fianna Fail councillors in the Co Louth constituency of Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern, who has also been tipped as a potential candidate for Taoiseach.
Speaking last Friday, Drogheda borough councillor Tommy Murphy said: "Bertie should step down. No disrespect to him, but if he is a real Fianna Fail man, as he is, then I believe he should do that for the benefit of the party.
"I know many of the councillors around the country who are not able to talk to you today; because of all the things that came out and were said at this tribunal, they've lost their seats. I feel the same thing is going to happen at the next [local] election as well because of what's going on." Cllr Murphy added of Mr Ahern's tribunal testimony: "If he's wrong then he's wrong -- he can't cover up that, it's as simple as that; then, step down."
Louth County Councillor Frank Maher agreed with Cllr Murphy's views, saying the Taoiseach had until this summer to leave office.
There is also serious concern within the ranks of Fianna Fail in relation to the absence of Mr Ahern's lawyers from the tribunal hearings last Thursday for Ms Carruth's second day of evidence, where she conceded she had lodged sterling sums to his account at the Irish Permanent Building Society in the 1990s.
While the political storm continues to swirl around the Taoiseach and his dealings with the Mahon Tribunal, both he and his supporters will be hopeful that a number of events will serve to insulate him from any attempts to bring a premature end to his leadership.
Mr Ahern's address to the joint US Houses of Congress on April 30, and the holding of the Lisbon Treaty referendum on June 12, should both help to see him safely into the Dail's summer recess, which begins in July. With the tribunal expected to conclude its public hearings at the end of July, it could be up to another year before the inquiry's final report is issued.
The likelihood of that outcome is heightened, given the need for the tribunal to allow Mr Ahern the right to respond to its findings before publication.
By that point, campaigning for the 2009 local and European elections will be well under way, a factor which will make it difficult for Fianna Fail to seek a change in its leadership.