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Sunday 17 February 2019

'Bring back Bertie' poll as FF fears for 31 seats

Public confidence in Cowen slumps as over half demand a new leader

DANIEL McCONNELL and JOHN DRENNAN

As a 'bring back Bertie' sentiment gathers momentum with the public, Fianna Fail TDs yesterday delivered a hammer blow to the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.

A survey of backbench TDs conducted by the Sunday Independent reveals that an overwhelming majority lays the blame for the party's historic drop in support on Mr Cowen's first Budget as leader of Fianna Fail.

Specifically, the anxious TDs have pointed to the botched handling of proposed cuts in medical card eligibilty for the over-70s, education cutbacks and the cervical cancer vaccination debacle.

The TDs' assessment comes as an Irish Times/TNS MRBI poll revealed that half the electorate now believes that former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern would be a "better leader" in the current economic crisis than his successor, Mr Cowen who has the support of only 24 per cent of the electorate, with 26 per cent "don't knows".

More significantly, a huge majority of Fianna Fail supporters (61 per cent) now favours Mr Ahern ahead of the beleaguered Mr Cowen (27 per cent) to steer the country out of the current crisis; 46 per cent of Green Party supporters would also favour Mr Ahern over Mr Cowen (21 per cent).

Meanwhile, a Sunday Independent/Quantum Research telephone poll of 500 people nationwide confirmed the discontent with Mr Cowen. Over half (53 per cent) said they would like to see Mr Cowen replaced as Taoiseach.

Yesterday, refusing to make any comment on the leadership findings, Mr Ahern said: "It's a very difficult year, but the Government have to keep with their way, keep with their action. They have to build on it for 2009, which is going to be a very difficult year all over the world."

While leaving St Luke's for the rugby match in Croke Park, he also dismissed talk of a national government, saying it was "not necessary".

Out of the 35 FF TDs surveyed by the Sunday Independent this weekend, over 80 per cent blamed the dramatic drop in support on Budget cuts and the way in which various crises have been handled by Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan.

Yesterday, the backlash against Mr Cowen's leadership, in the aftermath of a series of political misjudgements, was gathering pace within the Fianna Fail parliamentary party.

"Never have I seen so much political capital wasted on such a small financial saving," said Cork TD NoelO'Flynn. "There is a total lack of confidence and we are not communicating the decisions to the public."

Another outspoken TD, Ned O'Keeffe, criticised the number of junior ministers and Oireachtas committees. "I often wonders what they all do," he said. "It is all about getting a job and getting a big pension, a big salary and status. It's not in the national interest anymore. It's about ourselves. It's wrong. Reform is badly needed," he said.

Over 65 per cent of the TDs surveyed by the Sunday Independent said the Government must take on public sector reform if it wanted to restore its authority.

Mr O'Flynn said the time had come for the Taoiseach to address the nation and that he should immediately set up an economic emergency committee to form a strategic plan to steer the country out of recession.

Bobby Aylward, TD for Carlow Kilkenny, said that since the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the Government had been battered by one mishap after another. He said: "It's a tough time for the country but we are not communicating our actions well to the people. We are getting it in the neck in our constituencies."

The issue of party discipline was repeatedly raised in our survey this weekend.

A former Cabinet minister said: "After Joe Behan and Jim McDaid, the indiscipline within the party is growing. Brian Cowen has a serious problem on his hands now. He needs to do three things immediately. He needs to listen, he needs to communicate, and he needs to become a strict disciplinarian."

While many backbench FF TDs were deeply unhappy about the Government's recent performance, yesterday they tried to maintain a show of public confidence that Mr Cowen was the right man to lead the country in crisis.

Timmy Dooley, TD for Clare, said: "I'm getting hit hard by the backlash over the Budget. It's not popular, but I believe the cuts are in the country's long-term interest."

Dara Calleary, TD for Mayo, said the main problem with the Budget was the way it was communicated. "Reforming the public sector would help pay for important concessions and other measures to improve the business climate."

If there was an election called tomorow, Fianna Fail would lose a total of 31 seats on the basis of the Irish Times poll, according to analysis by the Sunday Independent.

The scenario that is now facing the Government parties includes the likelihood that at least five Cabinet ministers and eight Ministers of State would lose their seats in such an election.

In the short-term, last week's Irish Times poll will strengthen the determination of the Coalition partners to stay together, rather than risk an election.

Though relations between the parties are still good, the Government is at the mercy of unforeseen events. In particular, there is serious concern that the ongoing collapse of taxation returns could mean an emergency Budget early in 2009.

The Minister for Finance would, in such an event, have to impose even more serious cuts than those seen so far. Under such circumstances, it would put further pressure on Green TDs such as Paul Gogarty, Ciaran Cuffe and Mary White.

Concern is also growing within the Fianna Fail party that if confidence in Mr Cowen deteriorates further, the Greens might decide that leaving Government was the best means to ensure their own political survival.

Based on an analysis of results at the last election, ministers facing the loss of their seat if the Irish Times poll was carried through include Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who is widely perceived as being a possible successor to Brian Cowen; the Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe; and Health Minister Mary Harney, who has lost the confidence of 63 per cent of the public.

Junior ministers who face losing their seats include Dick Roche in Wicklow, Martin Mansergh in Tipperary, Jimmy Devins in Sligo, Sean Power in Kildare, Barry Andrews in Dublin, Tony Kileen in Clare and Conor Lenihan and Chief Whip Pat Carey, both in Dublin.

The Green Party faces the possibility of being annihilated, with the party's two ministers -- Eamon Ryan and John Gormley -- extremely vulnerable.

Former party leader Trevor Sargent would also be under pressure in Dublin North, whilst Ciaran Cuffe would almost certainly lose his seat in Dun Laoghaire to Richard Boyd Barrett. In Carlow Kilkenny, Green Party chairperson Mary White is vulnerable to a two-pronged attack from Labour or FG.

This result would see FF winning the lowest number of seats since 1927, when they were operating under the shadow of the Civil War.

In contrast, Fine Gael (69) is poised to win the largest number of seats since Garrett FitzGerald secured 70 in 1982.

Poll of TDs and additional reporting conducted by Ronald Quinlan, Jerome Reilly, Niamh Horan, Alison O'Riordan.

See Analysis, Page 22

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