United they stand
But later remarks from Lenihan spark confusion
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was last night forced to get Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to put on a united front to quell a Fianna Fail backbench revolt against his leadership.
The apparent show of strength from the party's two leading figures was also intended to reassure international markets amid accusations that the political uncertainty was causing Ireland's cost of borrowing to rise.
Ahead of an important sale of government debt today, Mr Lenihan, who has been mooted as a potential leader, said the most "important rumbles" were those on the markets.
But Mr Lenihan later added to the air of confusion by giving out what were regarded as mixed messages within Leinster House.
Mr Cowen gave a coherent performance as he said he was "not a Taoiseach on probation".
He made the same statement to the Fianna Fail party three months ago on the last occasion that he aimed to shut down dissent in the party ranks over his leadership. His announcement from the steps of Government Buildings came after Fianna Fail TD Tom Kitt became the first party figure to publicly call for Mr Cowen to resign as he called for new leadership.
Mr Kitt's call for a party meeting to debate the leadership issue was backed by Fianna Fail TD Michael Kennedy, but rejected by the party hierarchy.
Reiterating the level of anger within Fianna Fail, Mr Lenihan pointed out that there were "a lot of concerns" expressed about Mr Cowen's performance but the "issue is now closed".
"Yes, I expect he (Mr Cowen) will lead Fianna Fail into the next election. But of course I am aware members of the parliamentary party have raised certain questions (to) which they seek answers, and I have no doubt that will be dealt with within the procedures of the party," he said on RTE news.
But sources close to Mr Lenihan said the minister simply wanted to focus on the economy in the interview.
Mr Cowen shot down questions about resigning the leadership. He claimed he never once considered resigning as Taoiseach in the midst of the past week's controversy over his below-par radio interview.
"As I've said on many occasions, I'm not a Taoiseach on probation. I'm the elected leader of our party. I've the full support of my government colleagues and we have a job of work to do," he said.
Attempting to draw a line under last week's controversy, Mr Cowen insisted the matter had been comprehensively dealt with and was at an end.
Mr Cowen said there were huge challenges facing the country and big decisions to be made in the coming weeks. He said the country needed a decisive government to take the necessary decisions.
"I'm doing my job and people need to know that," he said.
Mr Lenihan claimed the country was in too serious a position to be speculating about the leadership position.
Meanwhile, emphasising the challenges facing Mr Cowen, the governor of the Central Bank warned the Government would have to implement more severe budget cutbacks if international investors were to be convinced that Ireland was on the path to recovery,
Professor Patrick Honohan called on the Government to review its cost-cutting plans for the upcoming Budget.
He said the country was not on course to reduce the budget deficit to 3pc by 2014 with its current plans and urged "explicit re-programming" of the public finances in the coming years.
Yesterday's warning came as the cost of government borrowing shot up to 6.4pc.
Investor appetite for Irish debt will be tested again this morning as the country sells another €1.5bn bond on the international markets.
Last night, Mr Lenihan's brother, junior minister Conor Lenihan, added to the doubt about the leadership issue being closed. He said it was an "open question" as to whether the party could change leader without sparking a general election.
"In the past we have changed Taoiseach, the most spectacular case being the replacement of Albert Reynolds by John Bruton, and that worked out to be a very stable government that saw through its term," he said on RTE's 'The Frontline'.
Conor Lenihan said he can't predict the future and he was not his brother's keeper, but the Government needed stability.
He said if Mr Cowen "wishes to lead this party into the next general election, he will do so".