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Cowen 'in Limboland' as Martin turns screw

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen believes he has sufficient support among TDs and senators to lead Fianna Fail to what will almost certainly be a resounding defeat in the upcoming general election.

But supporters of Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin last night claimed the momentum was with them, and that the gap between his support and support for Mr Cowen was closing rapidly.

Over the past 48 hours, the mood in Mr Cowen's camp has oscillated wildly between optimism and despair as the sounding out of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party continued all day yesterday.

A source close to Mr Cowen said yesterday: "He is changing his mind every 10 minutes as to what he should do."

While Mr Cowen believes he has enough support to carry the day, he is also mindful of an influential body of opinion within the party

which has suggested to him that he should resign now for the good of the country and of Fianna Fail.

The Taoiseach yesterday told a senior Government figure: "I'm in limbo land".

His main rival, Mr Martin, is prepared to await the outcome of Mr Cowen's consultation process. However, he has let it be known that he is prepared to launch a full-frontal challenge for the leadership of Fianna Fail.

Mr Martin is being encouraged by a sizeable proportion of the parliamentary party to do so and is said to have the committed support of the 18 members needed to table a motion of "no confidence" in the leadership.

There has been widespread speculation in political circles that deveral ministers, insluding Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin have told Mr Cowen that he should step down as leader of Fianna Fail and gave him an ultimatum to do so before Monday. It is also speculated that Minister Mary Hanfin told him he should not lead the party into the next general election.

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Last night Cork North-Central TD, Noel O'Flynn, again called on Mr Cowen to resign and publicly endorsed the leadership of Mr Martin.

Mr O'Flynn contacted the Sunday Independent early yesterday afternoon to say that he was asking his colleagues to "get behind the candidature" of Mr Martin.

A well-known maverick TD, it was difficult to know yesterday whether Mr O'Flynn was acting at the behest of Mr Martin, although he maintains that he was not, saying "you can quote me on that".

However, a senior FF figure said last night that Mr O'Flynn "would not walk up and down the street without the say-so of Micheal Martin" and he said that he believed the intervention of Mr O'Flynn indicated that a heave against Mr Cowen was more likely.

Yesterday sources close to Mr Martin said that the minister would await the formal conclusion of Mr Cowen's consultations with the parliamentary party. These sources intimated, however, that Mr Martin was more convinced than ever of an "appetite for a change of leadership", and suggested that he would mount a challenge.

Last night Cork city councillor Sean Martin, a brother of Micheal Martin, said it was "time for people to put up or shut up" in relation to the leadership contest.

"I'd love to see my brother as leader of the party," he said, but added that Brian Cowen was "one of the most likeable politicians I ever met".

Meanwhile Green sources denied they were told the Taoiseach would step down today that having talked with many members of the party he still didn't know what course of action to take.

In the Sunday Independent today, Celia Larkin, the ex-partner of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, writes: "Those who have aspirations of becoming leader don't have the bottle to confront him on the matter -- and he knows it."

The leadership ambitions of Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin seem to have receded somewhat in recent days.

Ms Hanafin, who is known to be close to Mr Martin, is thought to be positioning herself for the deputy leadership should Mr Martin actually take on and succeed in removing Mr Cowen as leader.

Yesterday there was feverish speculation that Ms Hanafin intended to resign from the Cabinet this week, in which case an all-out leadership battle would be under way. Asked about this yesterday, she said: "Absolutely not."

Sources close to the Taoiseach claim that Mr Lenihan has told Mr Cowen to "stay where he is". It is understood Mr Lenihan would still be interested in the leadership of FF after the election.

Loyalists of Mr Cowen are convinced they have the support of a vast majority of the parliamentary party and are prepared to meet head-on any challenge that should arise.

There is an alternative view that Mr Martin will, ultimately, shy away from a direct challenge; were he to withdraw now, however, it might damage his leadership prospects after the election.

Mr Martin may be encouraged by today's Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll which finds growing support for him. Asked who should lead FF into the election, the poll found: Micheal Martin (31 per cent); others (28 per cent); Brian Lenihan (19 per cent); Brian Cowen (11 per cent); and Mary Hanafin (11 per cent).

A total 68 per cent want an immediate election, while 32 per cent said they did not.

Worryingly for Mr Cowen, a massive 80 per cent do not believe that he did not discuss the affairs of Anglo Irish Bank with Sean FitzPatrick at Druids Glen in July 2008.

Even more worryingly, a huge 77 per cent believed the Taoiseach's links to figures such as Mr FitzPatrick had influenced his decision to extend the State bank guarantee to Anglo.

Sixty-one per cent said they did not believe the Taoiseach or government ministers should attend dinners with bankers or business people.

Yesterday Gaeltacht and Social Affairs Minister Pat Carey dismissed as "totally untrue" reports that supporters of Mr Cowen were urging him to resign.

Former Defence Minister, Willie O'Dea, however, said that his telephone conversation with the Taoiseach had been "amicable, good humoured and totally frank".

Mr O'Dea told Mr Cowen that because of the "terrible battering" the Taoiseach had taken in the media, it would be better if someone else would lead the party.

The Taoiseach is believed to have told Mr O'Dea that he respected him for speaking frankly. But he added that it was his purpose to make up his mind in the best interests of the party on the basis of the genuine feelings of the members of the party.

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