| 9.4°C Dublin

Fianna Fail grassroots turn backs on Cowen

EMBATTLED Taoiseach Brian Cowen was an increasingly isolated figure in Fianna Fail last night as his party's grassroots turned against him.

Mr Cowen fended off the growing demands to resign as Eamon O Cuiv, the champion of Fianna Fail loyalists, refused to back the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach faces into a second weekend of intense pressure on his leadership of the party following his botched reshuffle crisis.

And there was speculation within Fianna Fail that Mr Cowen would be approached by close friends in the party over the weekend and told it was time to resign.

In a sign of the growing uncertainty in the Coalition, the Green Party did not guarantee to vote for the Government in the motion of no confidence next week.

The junior coalition party opted to wait until Tuesday to decide after seeing how the weekend's events panned out.

A party source said these were not "ordinary times" and the party was evaluating the situation on a day-to-day basis.

Defeated leadership challenger Micheal Martin urged the party's TDs to "think about what has happened and begin to chart a way forward very quickly".

But the former Foreign Affairs Minister ruled out launching another challenge to Mr Cowen.

The Taoiseach's own supporters conceded his position appeared to be becoming untenable yesterday morning, but as the day went on, he fought back.

Mr Cowen stubbornly insisted he would lead his bitterly divided party into the general election on March 11 as he categorically refused to step down.

Fianna Fail TDs have reported being savaged by members following the reshuffle affair.

And support for Mr Cowen wavered as TDs who backed him in the confidence motion reconsidered their positions.

A string of others who publicly backed Mr Cowen before Tuesday's confidence vote would not answer calls yesterday or publicly support him.

The shift in support among those who backed Mr Cowen casts further doubts on his position as party leader. And a number of TDs said they were spending the weekend starting their election campaigns.

Fianna Fail TDs also reported dismay in the party grassroots over Thursday's reshuffle fiasco, with one minister saying that party activists "to a man and woman" are raging.

Mr Cowen shrugged off suggestions of a threat to his leadership by insisting he would lead Fianna Fail into the general election. He tried to move on from the controversy over his botched reshuffle by saying "that issue is over".

He also announced he would be creating a new Fianna Fail "frontbench" instead -- so that younger TDs in the party could become spokespeople in portfolios ahead of the election.

"I have the support of my party, as confirmed by democratic decision last Tuesday, to lead this party into this election and beyond, and that's what I intend to do," Mr Cowen said.

After backing Mr Cowen earlier this week, Mr O Cuiv yesterday refused to say he had confidence in the Taoiseach when speaking in person to the Irish Independent.

The Social Protection Minister's stance is viewed as significant as he is regarded as being most in touch with Fianna Fail grassroots membership.

The grandson of the party's founder, Eamon de Valera, is always staunchly loyal to Fianna Fail and defends the party to the hilt from attack.

Mr O Cuiv's reluctance to back Mr Cowen is a real sign the party membership has now turned on the Taoiseach.

After being the first cabinet minister to publicly back the Taoiseach last Sunday, when Mr Cowen put down a motion of confidence in himself, Mr O Cuiv refused to endorse his leader yesterday.

At the opening of a Brothers of Charity day-care centre in Furbo, Galway, Mr O Cuiv was directly asked if he still had confidence in Mr Cowen as Fianna Fail leader. "I have no comment," Mr O Cuiv said.

Mr O Cuiv also surprisingly declined to be interviewed on Raidio na Gaeltachta. He frequently avails of the opportunity to speak to station listeners in his Connemara heartland.

Former minister Willie O'Dea has again warned of an electoral catastrophe for the party if Mr Cowen leads it into the general election. Conor Lenihan, Michael McGrath, Thomas Byrne, Ned O'Keeffe and others all want Mr Cowen to resign.

Irish Independent