MINISTER for Finance Brian Lenihan is willing to immediately take over from Taoiseach Brian Cowen should he resign after his notorious "hungover" radio interview, the Sunday Independent has reason to believe.
Mr Lenihan, who has cancer, is nevertheless prepared to succeed Mr Cowen if there is agreement among members of the Cabinet and a majority of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party that he should do so.
This weekend, the Minister for Finance remains open to discussion with members of the Cabinet, and to talks with Fianna Fail TDs and senators, on how best to proceed after what was the most controversial week in the political career of the Taoiseach.
While there is some loose talk among a few backbench TDs that a motion of 'no confidence' in Mr Cowen be tabled, it emerged from authoritative sources this weekend that a majority of Fianna Fail TDs and senators want to avoid such a move.
The disclosure today that Mr Lenihan, even though he is in ill-health, would be willing to step up to the position of Taoiseach, is now expected to provoke a flurry of activity which may, depending on the attitude taken by Mr Cowen, culminate in the speedy departure of the Taoiseach. The overwhelming feeling within the Fianna Fail parliamentary party is that a direct challenge to Mr Cowen for the leadership should be avoided at all costs, but that he might be persuaded that he should resign after more than two years as Taoiseach.
"He must be encouraged to voluntarily step down," a senior and respected TD told the Sunday Independent yesterday.
"If he were to be convinced of the merit in that, then everybody would be satisfied. Nobody wants to see him humiliated."
Yesterday, Mr Lenihan refused to be publicly drawn on his intentions.
But he conceded that the controversy surrounding Mr Cowen this weekend had done "real damage" to Fianna Fail and had been an "unwanted distraction" for the Government.
Three other members of the Cabinet -- Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, and Tourism Culture and Sport Minister Mary Hanafin -- also have been implicitly critical of the Taoiseach in recent days.
Mr Martin has emerged as an early favourite in media reports to succeed Mr Cowen.
However, the disclosure today that Mr Lenihan, without wishing to precipitate the downfall of the Taoiseach, is willing to take over, will serve to concentrate minds in Fianna Fail.
In any decision it may take, the Fianna Fail parliamentary party will next week take into account the results of a Sunday Independent/Quantum Research opinion poll today which found that a huge majority would prefer Mr Lenihan to Mr Martin as a potential Taoiseach should Mr Cowen resign.
Asked if Mr Cowen did step down as Taoiseach, who they would prefer to replace him, respondents said: Brian Lenihan (70 per cent), Micheal Martin (30 per cent).
The telephone poll of 500 people nationwide also found that were Mr Cowen to be replaced as Taoiseach, a majority would prefer his successor to continue in government rather than a General Election. Asked what a new Taoiseach should do, 55 per cent said he should be allowed an opportunity to solve the country's economic problems and 45 per cent said a General Election should be called immediately.
Almost three-quarters (70 per cent) of those polled believed Mr Cowen was "hungover" during his controversial interview on Morning Ireland last Tuesday, while 30 per cent believed he was not.
The poll also found that a huge majority (77 per cent) felt Mr Cowen was wrong to socialise until 3.30am the night before the scheduled interview, while 23 per cent felt he was right to do so.
Another interesting finding came when the opinion of respondents was sought on the decision of Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney to tweet that the Taoiseach was "somewhere between drunk and hungover" in the radio interview: 35 per cent said he was right to do so, but 65 per cent said he was wrong.