Wednesday 24 January 2018

Backbenchers in revolt against Taoiseach

DANIEL McCONNELL, JEROME REILLY and JOHN DRENNAN

A BACKBENCH revolt to oust Brian Cowen as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail is under way this weekend, and there are even suggestions that a motion of no confidence will be tabled in the near future, the Sunday Independent has learned.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has been approached by more than a dozen backbenchers, urging him to lead a challenge against the Taoiseach. On Friday, as it became clear that the controversy over disastrous Morning Ireland interview was not going away, contacts intensified between junior ministers and backbench TDs.

By yesterday, those contacts had coalesced into direct phone calls to Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, the two perceived front runners for the leadership.

"At least a dozen people have called Mr Lenihan, that's a fact. Cowen is finished. We are determined and things are likely to move quickly," said a senior backbencher.

As Ireland faces an economic abyss, a political vacuum now exists at the heart of government. Fianna Fail has been gripped by the "jitters" as one senior minister put it yesterday, and many are simply waiting for one of the senior ministers to move.

At least 18 members of the parliamentary party are required to trigger a motion of no confidence in the leader.

The numbers now add up for a push against Mr Cowen, provided that one of the senior ministers with genuine leadership aspirations -- Brian Lenihan, Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin or Dermot Ahern -- agrees to become a focal point for a putsch.

But while any motion would need the support of 36 members of the parliamentary party to oust Mr Cowen, it is likely that even the tabling of a motion of no confidence with the support of one or more senior ministers would render the Taoiseach's position untenable.

Even Mr Cowen's staunchest opponents would prefer a bloodless coup, with the Taoiseach being approached by one or more members of the Cabinet and told he no longer has the support of a majority of his party.

The general view is that if Mr Lenihan wants the job, he needs to make another full disclosure on his health -- but he is the clear favourite. If Mr Lenihan does not put himself forward, Mr Martin would be the preferred alternative.

A Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research poll of 500 voters shows that Mr Lenihan is the people's preferred choice. Respondents were given a choice between Mr Lenihan and Mr Martin, the perceived frontrunners if Mr Cowen was to stand aside or be forced out.

Seventy per cent of respondents favoured the Finance Minister, with 30 per cent supporting Micheal Martin.

According to the poll, Mr Lenihan is already perceived by many as the de facto leader of the country. However, a significant number of those who supported Mr Lenihan also expressed concerns about his health.

Within Fianna Fail, many TDs now believe the only thing keeping the Taoiseach in power is a fear that replacing him would mean an immediate general election -- and the annihilation of the party.

However the fear that the Green Party will walk if Fianna Fail changes leader for the second time in the 30th Dail may have eased.

Significantly, during Friday's closed door session of the Green Party think-in, the possibility of leaving government in the aftermath of a successful coup against Mr Cowen was not even raised.

The belief is growing among elements of the anti-Cowen faction of Fianna Fail that a Green party leadership that is deemed to be "nailed to their cabinet seats'' may take a pragmatic approach to any leadership change.

Within Fianna Fail, those who support Mr Cowen moved to publicly pledge their loyalty for the beleaguered party leader this weekend.

But his opponents, who are still unsure of their ground, refused to go on the record and call for his removal.

Cowen loyalists include junior minister Dara Calleary, who told this newspaper: "I'm sticking with him, he's still the man for the job.

"It was a mistake to do the interview but we all make mistakes."

Other supporters included party chairman John Browne, junior minister Martin Mansergh and TDs Johnny Brady, Niall Collins, Niall Blaney, Michael Mulcahy and Darragh O'Brien.

But rebel TD Mattie McGrath described the Morning Ireland interview as a disaster and said: "He is simply not up to it and many people decided on hearing this interview that they feel the same way. When you look at the state of the country, it's farcical."

Another backbencher said: "His cohort of loyalists may be coming out to back him. I'm certainly not prepared to do that at this juncture."

Another senior backbencher said: "There is probably a feeling now that perhaps the man isn't up to it."

"I think what needs to happen is the same as when Bertie was damaged in a similar way. The men in grey suits went to him and said quietly, 'You have to stand down.'"

Sunday Independent

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