Lenihan to back Cowen
FIANNA Fail leader Brian Cowen will get a major boost today when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan backs him in the party's leadership battle.
Rebel Micheal Martin yesterday told the Irish Independent he still wants to be party leader in the future -- even if he fails to oust Mr Cowen tonight.
But Mr Cowen said last night he wanted to stay on as leader until after the general election "for however long as the party wishes to have me".
Mr Cowen faces a crucial vote of confidence tonight to determine if he will lead Fianna Fail into the election. He still appears to be favourite to win ahead of a secret ballot to be held in Leinster House.
That support is due to get a potentially decisive boost later today with sources indicating Mr Lenihan is expected to row in behind him.
Mr Lenihan is widely seen as a leading contender for the leadership with Mr Martin and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin in a battle for the position if Mr Cowen is deposed.
Ms Hanafin refused to indicate her voting intentions last night.
Mr Lenihan said he would make his views known ahead of the meeting, scheduled to start at 5.30pm. But sources close to the minister told the Irish Independent he would throw his weight behind Mr Cowen.
"He has reached a conclusion. It's likely he will come out in favour of the confidence motion. There is important business to be carried out. There is a programme that has to be got through, especially the Finance Bill," the source said.
But the vote is expected to be tight with a number of TDs declaring against Mr Cowen, including Willie O'Dea, who said the party faced an "unacceptably high risk of electoral annihilation".
Mr Cowen's supporters are concerned about the large number of TDs who are not declaring their intentions publicly -- and if those who did were telling the truth.
The latest tally of TDs by the Irish Independent shows some 33 pledged to support Mr Cowen at tonight's parliamentary party meeting. Only 11 TDs publicly pledged to vote against the Taoiseach in the motion of confidence.
But the remainder of the 71 TDs were either refusing to state their position or not answering phone calls for the second day in a row.
A supporter of Mr Martin believed from his own private tally that there would be a narrow majority against Mr Cowen.
Mr Martin told this newspaper that even if Mr Cowen held on, he still had ambitions to become leader after the next General Election. He said the issue would be parked until after polling day.
"I'm running in the election campaign. I've been in various ministries and so on and senior positions in the party and, of course, I would be interested into the future if a vacancy arose.
"But I would accept that any decision tomorrow would be a resolution of the issue for the election and, indeed, beyond. I wouldn't be, in other words, leading anything in the immediate aftermath of the election," he said.
Mr Martin dismissed suggestions that he had damaged his chances of the leadership by heading up the revolt as "a matter of observation".
"That's not the motivating factor here. I think the motivating factor here is many deputies said to me you'd better make sure we have an effective enough campaign to ensure there is a significant number of Fianna Fail deputies returned and we will have a significant presence in the Dail to support policies that are required to enable the country to continue along the road of economic recovery," he said.
Ironically, Mr Martin's long-time local rival in Cork, Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe, is emerging as the key adviser in Mr Cowen's camp.
"Batt is quickly becoming the Phil Hogan of Fianna Fail. He's rallying everybody together and calming everyone down," a party source said.
Mr Lenihan, meanwhile, said he would make his views known ahead of the meeting, scheduled to start at 5.30pm. Sources close to him told the Irish Independent he would throw his weight behind Mr Cowen.
Mr Lenihan's aunt, Fianna Fail TD Mary O'Rourke, is also expected to back Mr Cowen.
His support is also likely to swing those TDs encouraging him to fight for the leadership.
Although he refused to disclose his intentions while at a eurozone finance meeting in Brussels yesterday, sources close to Mr Lenihan said he did not want to mix up domestic politics while carrying out important EU business.
Mr Lenihan said Mr Cowen had "indicated that he's got majority support" in the vote. But the Finance Minister, who some TDs believed was about to launch a heave last week, was reported to have told Mr Cowen to step down.
Although he shares the same concerns about the state of Fianna Fail and its standing in the polls as Mr Martin, it is understood he feels a change of leader could threaten the stability of the Government.
Mr Lenihan was one of a number of senior ministers who urged Mr Cowen to put down a confidence motion in himself to bring clarity and finality to the leadership issue, which has rumbled on for months.
He also lobbied Mr Cowen to opt for a secret ballot and yesterday welcomed the Taoiseach's decision to do so.
Dermot Ahern is not expected to be present at the meeting following his hip operation and Noel Treacy is also a doubt for health reasons.