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Cowen is contrite -- but won't quit drink

Taoiseach Brian Cowen is said to have "purged" himself at a meeting of Fianna Fail cabinet ministers in what turned out to be a successful bid to stave off the threat of a challenge to his leadership -- but he fell short of saying that he would quit alcohol.

Cabinet sources say Mr Cowen made an "unprecedented personal intervention", to the extent that he impressed upon ministers that he had undergone what some of them are calling a "road to Damascus" conversion in relation to his social life.

A humbled Mr Cowen spoke at length to Fianna Fail ministers at a breakfast meeting last Wednesday after the infamous 'think-in' in Galway, after which he had a private discussion with the Greens' leader, John Gormley.

When he addressed the hugely damaging controversy which erupted, at home and internationally, in relation to his infamous "hungover" interview on RTE, the Taoiseach is said to have effectively thrown himself at the mercy of his colleagues in the Cabinet.

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There was some expectation within the Cabinet that the Taoiseach would disclose his intention to give up drink until the next General Election, but Mr Cowen did not live up to the expectation, it has been confirmed. He has, however, promised to change his lifestyle.

A government source told the Sunday Independent: "He was entirely contrite, entirely upfront and contrite."

Another said: "It was fairly abject stuff. I'm sure it will all come out when memoirs are written, or the historians do their work."

With Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan by his side, the Taoiseach last week told the media that he was not a leader "on probation", emphasising that he and Mr Lenihan were working on the Budget and concentrating cabinet focus on the issue of job creation.

But sources within the Government have subsequently described Mr Cowen as being "on his final chance".

Yesterday a senior source said: "He is not safe yet, but he is on safer ground for the moment, if you know what I mean."

The Taoiseach left the breakfast meeting of the opinion, correctly as it turned out, that he would not be directly challenged for the leadership, but also conscious that several of his colleagues would not have objected had he chosen to offer his resignation.

With a stay of execution in place, Mr Cowen then immediately seized upon the opportunity presented.

Last week he went on the offensive in a series of public engagements, part of a strategy that has been devised by his PR advisers.

He will seek to maintain the initiative this week when he will lead the announcement of what government sources are calling an "integrated plan for trade, tourism and investment" -- a five-year strategy that promises to generate 300,000 new jobs and boost exports by one-third.

Mr Cowen will also meet a high-profile trade delegation from China this week, and he will meet in Government Buildings with former US President Bill Clinton.

Whether Mr Cowen maintains his "road to Damascus" conversion will be adjudged in the coming weeks and months as the prospect of a general election draws nearer.

But observers inside the Government believe that the Taoiseach has already ceded some of his authority to his senior colleagues, particularly to Mr Lenihan, who is expected to have a freer hand this year in the formation of budgetary policy.

The Coalition's increasingly precarious position in the Dail has given rise to a growing belief that the election will be held next summer, or possibly even spring.

On the basis of the results of an opinion poll last week, Sunday Independent analyst John Drennan this weekend predicts that only eight Fianna Fail TDs can be regarded as "safe" seats, and that the Party might only win 40 seats in the election.

A Red C poll undertaken for the Sunday Business Post shows Fianna Fail (24 per cent) unchanged; Fine Gael (31 per cent) down two points; Labour (23 per cent) down four points; Sinn Fein (10 per cent) up two; and the Independents (9 per cent) up three points.

The poll will not ease momentum in Fine Gael towards a fresh challenge to the leadership of Enda Kenny, as it shows the party has plateaued at around 30 per cent of popular support. A renewed move against Mr Kenny is mooted to be in the offing.

But there is widespread agreement among his opponents that a challenge would have to be sparked by at least one senior figure who had supported Mr Kenny in June, when he was challenged by Richard Bruton.

There seems to be less certainty this time that Mr Kenny will, ultimately, be taken on again, although several of his opponents were this weekend holding out the prospect that a "respected and authoritative voice" within the party would soon be heard, and they anticipated that this would kick off another heave.

Publicly the Taoiseach has said that he would be "more cautious" in his social life following the controversy which raged after his interview on the RTE radio programme, Morning Ireland, during the Fianna Fail 'think-in'.

In an opinion poll last week, 71 per cent of people felt that Mr Cowen's credibility had been damaged as a result of the interview.

But Mr Cowen is said to be "more upset" by the perceived damage to the dignity of the Taoiseach's office in the fall-out from his socialising in Galway two weeks ago.

Privately, he has intimated to some colleagues that he intends to significantly reduce his intake of alcohol, and to curb his smoking habit, although he is said to maintain that the issue of his socialising is greatly exaggerated.

"Brian is aware that no matter where he goes now, people will be counting the number of pints he might have," one of his closer colleagues told the Sunday Independent last week.

As if to confirm this opinion, the Sunday Independent was contacted by an individual last week who wanted to report that Mr Cowen "only had two pints" in his home town of Clara, Co Offaly, last Sunday night, to where he had retired after the All-Ireland football final.

"I can tell you here and now -- just the two. That's all he had. He said 'good-night lads' and headed off before he even came in," the source said.

In relation to events arising out of the Fianna Fail 'think-in', Mr Cowen last week said: "I take responsibility for my end of things and I'll make sure they don't happen again."

He said people in all walks of life worked very hard but there were occasions when people socialised and relaxed. "I just hope that they can see it in that light, not any more or any less than that," he added.

When asked if he would still visit pubs in Tullamore he said: "It is important when you are Taoiseach that the dignity of the office has to be upheld at all times. I would hate for anyone to think that I wouldn't take that aspect of my job seriously."

Sunday Independent