TAOISEACH Brian Cowen was fighting a rearguard action within Fianna Fail last night to control the damage from revelations of contacts with Anglo Irish Bank chief Sean FitzPatrick.
Fianna Fail leadership contenders were again being encouraged by some TDs to move against the Taoiseach if they wanted him replaced before the General Election.
In particular, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin was being identified as a potential leader -- but there was no indication he was moving.
Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin also failed to express full confidence in Mr Cowen last night when repeatedly asked to do so. She also said the controversy was "the last thing you want at the beginning of the year".
Mr Cowen issued a strongly worded statement last night to "utterly refute any suggestions of impropriety" on his part. He said no discussions regarding Anglo took place during his infamous golf outing with Mr FitzPatrick.
"It was a social outing in full public view. There was nothing untoward, no hidden or secret agenda and no concessions, favours or interventions requested or granted.
"Certain people are drawing inferences for political and other motives, they are malicious, unfounded and have no basis in fact," he said.
But he was still facing further unrest in his own party after the revelations of his golfing day out and phone calls with the former Anglo boss.
The Green Party concerns appeared to have been allayed following a telephone conversation between Environment Minister John Gormley and Mr Cowen.
"The Taoiseach agreed to issue a comprehensive statement on the matter. He has agreed to deal with any questions that arise at Leader's Questions in the Dail," a spokesman said.
"The continuing attempts to suggest that the Government's approach to the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank was influenced by political or any inappropriate considerations is utterly without foundation. The facts in this instance demonstrate that, as do the findings of the independent review carried out by Professor Honohan which similarly found that there is no evidence or hint of corrupt regulatory forbearance," he concluded.
A spokesman for Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said he would not be commenting on whether he had been previously told about the meeting by Mr Cowen about his contacts with Mr FitzPatrick -- or what his opinion was now.
Mr Lenihan held a regular meeting with Mr Cowen yesterday but it is not clear if the issue was discussed.
Fianna Fail backbenchers said a heave against Mr Cowen was still possible -- but would require leading contenders like Mr Martin, Mr Lenihan and Ms Hanafin to all combine forces to persuade him it was time to go.
A Fianna Fail backbencher said approaches were made to senior figures to offer support for a heave.
Another TD said Mr Cowen was "not a serious golfer who had gone to meet Mr FitzPatrick to reduce his handicap".
He said Mr Cowen's declaration he had not talked about banking issues with Mr FitzPatrick during their golf outing and dinner was harder to believe than "Bertie telling the tribunal he won the money on a horse".
However, the backbencher cautioned there was a "weariness" in the party after "half moves and attempted moves" against Mr Cowen last year.
Another rural TD said he had talked to Mr Lenihan and Mr Martin on Sunday, and both were "furious" with the revelations.
"This is a mess, the party is a shambles going into the election. We have some of the Cabinet walking away and won't be there to defend us, we have new candidates wondering what they hell they've got themselves in for because they've heard nothing," the TD said.
Asked three times if Mr Cowen had her full confidence, Ms Hanafin refused to express full support in him to lead Fianna Fail into the next election.
"If Brian Cowen is my leader leading into the election, I'll go with that," she said.
She also accepted the controversy was damaging. "It's the last thing you want. It's the last thing you want at the beginning of the year," she said.
Transport Minister Noel Dempsey claimed Mr Cowen's statement clarifies the situation.
"It makes it very clear that whatever insinuations were being made were untrue and unfounded. I think that should draw a line under it," he said.
Sean FitzPatrick claims that in Anglo's final months the then Finance Minister Brian Cowen told the bank's top brass he would "look into" their request for him to encourage the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) to put some of its millions of cash on deposit at the bank.
BRIAN Cowen is the architect of his own misfortunes. Other Fianna Fail Taoisigh have stumbled out of office in humiliating circumstances or departed with false aplomb only to have their reputations shredded later. Mr Cowen brought the house crashing down around him and somehow convinced himself, if nobody else, that it was still intact.