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Fiach Kelly: What a long week it was in politics

IT was Enda Kenny who spotted the internal tension at play within Fianna Fail. Last Wednesday in the Dail, as Brian Cowen explained his golf outing with Sean FitzPatrick, Micheal Martin sat further away from the Taoiseach than usual, studiously examining his performance.

"I noted the intensity of the Foreign Affairs Minister as he was looking at the Taoiseach when replying," Mr Kenny said.

Mr Martin -- clearly caught in the act -- pulled a face of mock indignation, but the tension between the pair which was evident that day exploded into open battle last night.

Mr Kenny was more accurate than he could have known -- two days before his Dail comments, Mr Martin had told Mr Cowen to stand aside. The Cork TD had been bombarded with messages from colleagues despairing at the state of the party.

Mr Martin finally went public last night and another extraordinary few days in Irish politics lie ahead with the official beginning of the long-rumoured leadership contest within Fianna Fail.

The discontent within the party was evident as the Dail resumed after its Christmas break last week. TDs came back and shared stories of an organisation in rag order, non-existent election planning and atrocious opinion polls. To top it off, the public was furious over Mr Cowen's golf and dinner day out with FitzPatrick.

Senior ministers despaired of Mr Cowen's Dail performance last Wednesday, when it had to be dragged out of him that another Anglo director, Gary McGann, and a Central Bank director, Alan Gray, had accompanied himself, his pal Fintan Drury and FitzPatrick at Druids Glen in July 2008.

The wheels started to turn that night and into the early hours of Thursday morning as Leinster House rumbled to the first significant moves against Mr Cowen.

There was a challenge in the offing, but nobody knew where it was coming from. Brian Lenihan was the initial suspect, and, even though the details of Mr Cowen and Mr Martin's Monday meeting remained secret, the Foreign Affairs Minister was also mentioned, as was Tourism and Culture Minister Mary Hanafin.

Speculation reached fever pitch at lunchtime on Thursday when Mr Cowen put back the weekly parliamentary party meeting by three hours.

It was widely expected he was going to stand aside as Fianna Fail leader, but he opened a "consultation period" where he took the opinion of TDs on his leadership.

It enabled Mr Cowen to talk to his TDs one on one. It wasn't a head-counting exercise, his allies insisted, but allowed him gauge the mood of the party.

In tandem with Mr Cowen's summits, Mr Martin was assessing his own strength among TDs.

The pair spoke on numerous occasions as the week progressed, with Mr Martin repeating that he had no confidence in his leader. It was reported that Ms Hanafin and Mr Lenihan conveyed similar messages.

On Friday, Mr Cowen broke off from his consultations to meet with Intel's Craig Barrett, who announced an expansion of his company's Maynooth plant.

Mr Cowen then went back to Co Offaly and consulted with his family, and began Saturday by continuing his consultations from his home county. Opinion hardened that he would step down by the time the weekend was out.

The Taoiseach came back up to Dublin that evening and met with his inner team in Government Buildings. He spoke with Mr Martin again, but was back in Co Offaly that night.

The Martin camp had been working under the assumption that Mr Cowen would resign yesterday, and was ready to allow the Taoiseach room to step down with dignity.

Mr Cowen left Co Offaly again and travelled back to Dublin and was in the capital by lunchtime yesterday. Mr Martin also left his Cork base and was in Dublin ready to respond to Mr Cowen's next move.

Spurred on by his allies in Cabinet -- such as Chief Whip John Curran, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and most notably Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe -- Mr Cowen decided to stand and fight.

They said the numbers were with him, and the idea of a confidence motion was floated to call the challengers' bluff. He tabled the motion for this Tuesday's parliamentary party meeting.

Mr Martin and Mr Cowen spoke again on numerous occasions yesterday and informed each other of their respective intentions. Mr Martin told Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey, but no one else in Cabinet -- not his prospective rival Brian Lenihan.

When it came to the crunch, Mr Cowen played for the national interest while Mr Martin appealed to the heart of his party, which is now on its knees.

"Its very survival is at stake and not to do something is irresponsible," Mr Martin said last night.

This week proved that cliche true -- a week is definitely a long time in politics.

Irish Independent