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Cowen: I am sorry for F-word Dail gaffe

BRIAN Cowen last night found himself in the eye of his first political controversy since becoming Taoiseach after he muttered the phrase "those f**kers" following angry Dail exchanges.

The Taoiseach was forced to "express regret" after his verbal gaffe was picked up by a microphone as TDs left the chamber.

Last night it emerged his muttered expletive was directed at the State agency responsible for consumer protection and not, as first thought, members of the Opposition.

It came just one day after Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was caught out on her knowledge of European affairs. Mr Cowen's deputy leader wrongly claimed twice that "larger member states have more than one European Commissioner".

And now the Taoiseach has left himself open to Opposition criticism for his use of "unparliamentary language".

The Taoiseach was earlier embroiled in controversy as he threatened to have Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny shouted down in the Dail after he was heckled by Opposition party benches. After the row with Fine Gael and a debate on consumer rip-offs and rising prices with Labour, the Taoiseach said to his Tanaiste: "Ring those people and get a handle on it will you... bring in all those f**kers."

Mr Cowen's spokesman last night insisted the Taoiseach was not referring to Fine Gael.

The Irish Independent understands Mr Cowen was referring to either the National Consumer Agency, oil companies, British retail chains operating in this country, or a combination of all three groups.

The Taoiseach's spokesman said Mr Cowen's comments came during a private conversation with a colleague.

"The Taoiseach did not refer to any member of the House. It should be pointed out the comment was not made on the Dail record," the spokesman said.

"It was a casual exchange between colleagues and picked up by the Dail microphone. In that context the Taoiseach regrets any offence caused by the words complained of."

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny was critical of the Taoiseach's remarks.

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"I think it's conduct unbecoming if these words were uttered by the Taoiseach in the Dail this morning.

"It's certainly not the kind of approach you would expect from the prime minister of the country," he said.

Attitude

Referring to Mr Cowen's threat to Fine Gael, Mr Kenny said the Taoiseach has "an attitude that he can bully and dictate to members of the opposition" and "has taken a particular attitude towards power".

He said he would not be silenced by such tactics.

In a further example of the new Taoiseach's markedly different leadership style from his predecessor Bertie Ahern, Mr Cowen has forbidden Fianna Fail TDs to be absent from the Dail except when they are abroad on official business.

He has also banned them from making private pairing arrangements with Opposition deputies.

All of his party's TDs found a letter from new Government chief whip Pat Carey demanding much tougher discipline in their post boxes yesterday morning.

Mr Carey also warned TDs he would be "keeping a record of any votes that may be missed by members" and "on a systematic basis informing the Taoiseach of any missed votes".

The letter says that pairing requests will only be agreed for official visits abroad and TDs' attendance at local events should be arranged for non-sitting days.

The chief whip also said that: "Under no circumstances are informal pairing arrangements to be entered into with opposition deputies."

One backbench Fianna Fail TD said that Mr Carey warned the parliamentary party about the crackdown on discipline and their attendance for votes at their meeting last week.

Mr Carey told the backbenchers: "I was a deputy [school] principal and I've heard all the 'dog ate my homework' excuses."


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