Wednesday 22 November 2017

'Feverish intrigue' to topple Cowen

John Drennan

John Drennan

Popular Lenihan seen by some as only hope of saving up to 20 seats in electoral bloodbath

Late summer intrigue in Fianna Fail is intensifying in anticipation of a possible leadership showdown at the parliamentary party's annual meeting in Galway in mid-September.

"August looks like being a wicked month in Fianna Fail," said one parliamentary party member yesterday.

"Already the phones are ringing and by the time we get together next month, I predict that the plotting will be feverish.

"If the polls are bad at that time, people will be looking to an alternative leader," he said.

"Brian Lenihan would be an immensely popular choice -- if his health is considered robust enough for the challenge," he added.

"To be realistic, hardly anyone in Fianna Fail is expecting to win the next general election, whenever that might be.

"This is about damage limitation, and installing a more popular leader in order to contain the inevitable loss of seats. Mr Lenihan's leadership could save us the loss of up to 20 seats."

Another source revealed that "a lot of discussion" was taking place ahead of the crucial party meeting in Galway on September 15 and 16.

Mr Lenihan is expected to make a statement at the Galway meeting about the ongoing status of his health that will shape the future of the party. Should the prognosis be a positive one, there is speculation that this would lead to a groundswell in his favour.

Fianna Fail is now divided between those members who want Mr Cowen out at any cost; an uncertain middle ground; and Mr Cowen's remaining supporters.

Last week, supporters of Mr Lenihan also reacted sharply to concerns about his capacity to deal with the rigours of the Taoiseach's position.

"He has been doing a fairly serious job for the last three years, some might say it is even more difficult than Mr Cowen's and he has shown himself to be fairly capable in that post," said one source.

Mr Cowen has already narrowly avoided an open leadership challenge on two previous occasions.

In the aftermath of a cabinet and backbench revolt over the Taoiseach's attempt to negotiate a new social partnership deal in 2009, plans for a coup were well advanced until Mr Lenihan's health problems came to public notice.

The Sunday Independent has also learnt that in the aftermath of a series of devastating polls "the decision had been made, yer man [Cowen] was dead".

Such was the collapse of morale within the party that even the Taoiseach's supporters were claiming that if Mr Lenihan was available then "Brian Cowen would be gone in a heartbeat".

However, the dissidents decided to hold back during the no-confidence motion on the Government.

As Enda Kenny battled for his political life in the chamber, supporters of Mr Cowen were seen "strong-arming deputies and asking them did they want to be like that lot [FG] over there".

Now the latest series of disastrous figures -- falling tax revenues, rising unemployment and the ballooning deficit -- as well as an ongoing hammering in the opinion polls has led to desperation over the Fianna Fail leadership.

"The panic is occurring in the constituencies now," said one rural TD. "You go to funerals or walk into a room and you feel the anger.

"They understand clearly that Mr Cowen is a dead duck and they're on the same butcher's block. When the public starts saying your seat is gone it's a powerful incentive to re-enter the fray," he added.

In spite of the various machinations, however, Mr Lenihan has remained publicly loyal to Mr Cowen.

"But people are coming to him," said one TD, "his door is always open, he is very sympathetic to our plight."

Ironically the one area of unity between the pro- and anti-Cowen camps concerns the necessity that "any heave must occur in September/ October -- after that they may stick with the man or go down with the ship".

If Mr Lenihan is not sufficiently well then "we will be back to the usual suspects, including Micheal Martin, Dermot Ahern and Mary Hanafin", said one source.

"It is possible that Eamon O Cuiv might fancy his chances, but very few other people would. If his hat is thrown into the ring, it will be thrown straight back afterwards," he said.

The Galway session is regarded by senior disgruntled figures in Fianna Fail as the last "major opportunity" for members of the parliamentary party to make their views known before the Dail resumes in October.

However, senior figures within the Cowen camp have made it clear that any attempted coup by the Lenihan camp will be resisted.

"It is not as easy as people think. There is still a very loyal following within the party for the Taoiseach," it was claimed.

There is also evidence that, in spite of his disappearance from public view, Mr Cowen is making moves to shore up his uncertain position.

Sunday Independent

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