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Brian breaks for Border, but troubles not over yet

JUST over a year ago an impressive fleet of government mercs travelled over the Border to Limavady in Derry for the North-South Ministerial Meeting. But it was an arrival of an entirely different kind yesterday when almost the entire Cabinet arrived in Armagh town for another North-South pow-wow.

While the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste arrived separately by car, the rest pulled up in a minibus. And there were plenty of spare seats in the bus given that it contained only four ministers -- or half the Cabinet, excluding the Taoiseach.

The bus was recommended by the Police Service of Northern Ireland for security reasons. The four ministers were driven to Monaghan in the comfort of their state cars, and then hopped on to the minibus for the trip across the Border.

The quartet's new titles took up more room than they did on the bus, given that Mary Hanafin is now Minister for Tourism, Culture, Sport, Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Brendan Smith is elevated to Minister for Agriculture and Justice and Law Reform; while Pat Carey's expanded title is Community, Equality, Gaeltacht Affairs and Transport.

Only Green Party minister Eamon Ryan hadn't been handed a shiny new portfolio to play with in the Great Biffo Giveaway in the Dail on Thursday.

There had been another sea-change since the last get-together. The Limavady meeting in December 2009 hit the headlines due to a spat between the North's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness, who squabbled over the fraught (and then unresolved) issue of the parades commission.

Now it was the other way around; Peter and Martin were singing from the same hymn-sheet but the attention was focused on the uproar between Fianna Fail and the Greens. There may be peace in the North, but an embattled Brian Cowen soon discovered there was to be no escape from the coalition shenanigans.

It was just over 24 hours since he announced his Compact Cabinet, sparking anger among many of his party and tumult in Leinster House. And just four days after winning a confidence motion, Brian was facing rumblings about rumbles again.

And so the Taoiseach's hosts, Peter and Martin, had to stand silently by while Brian was peppered with questions about his future as leader of Fianna Fail and the scrap with the Greens.

But instead it became clear it was a case of Brian Says No. Inspired perhaps by the intransigence of the North's former first minister, Big Ian Paisley, the Taoiseach was exuding a vibe of No Surrender. As far as he was concerned, his own Troubles were over.

This was a bit of wishful thinking. For the shockwaves from the reshuffle were still rippling out and the bickering hadn't abated by a long shot. But Brian wasn't giving an inch.

"The authority of my leadership remains," he declared. "What was involved (yesterday) was a refusal by the Green Party to support my right to decide the coalition government, to put my team into the field for the fighting of the election".

But had any of those harbingers of doom come knocking on his office door since the Dail debacle, suggesting that he should mull over his next move?

The Taoiseach was emphatic in his denial. "No, there hasn't. I have the support of my party to lead . . . and that's what I intend to do," he stated flatly.

But the trouble is, with his party in disarray and last week's defeated dissidents poking their heads back up over the political parapet, it may yet prove that the road to nowhere is paved with Brian's best intentions.

Irish Independent