Martin and Hanafin step up pressure on Cowen
FIANNA Fail leadership contenders Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin last night stepped up the pressure on Brian Cowen after the Taoiseach had faced down the most significant threat to his position so far.
Mr Martin urged party colleagues to tell Mr Cowen what they really think of the direction in which he is taking the party. And Ms Hanafin said Mr Cowen's consultation process within Fianna Fail should be "very tight, finishing tomorrow".
She said: "We need certainty before the weekend. It would be damaging for the party to have the issue just drag on."
Mr Cowen left open the possibility that he might stand down voluntarily in the coming days if and when the controversy over meeting with Anglo Irish Bank chiefs blows over.
He agreed to consult with his TDs and then weigh up their views on how they think the party is currently being led.
Mr Martin met with Mr Cowen earlier this week and it is believed that the two men discussed the leadership. Mr Martin said last night that he welcomed the consultation process with members of the parliamentary party.
"It is important that members use this opportunity to have their say on the future of the party," he said.
Mr Martin's first public comments this week will be interpreted as a clear signal to Fianna Fail TDs to tell Mr Cowen of how unhappy they are with his leadership heading into the General Election.
He has already signalled that he is "interested" in becoming the next leader of Fianna Fail if the opportunity arises.
Last night, Ms Hanafin also reaffirmed her intention to contest the next leadership race.
Despite Mr Cowen's survival of yesterday's meeting, his hold on the parliamentary party is now looking increasingly shaky. In what was taken as a sign of weakness, he declined invitations to move a vote of confidence in himself.
The fear in is that Mr Cowen has become a bigger electoral liability.
Rebel Kildare South backbencher Sean Power said the leadership issue was not over -- and publicly complained that Mr Cowen had not taken a "dignified opportunity" to resign.
Another backbencher, Michael Kennedy, said he understood that Mr Cowen would come back next week about "whether he believes he should lead the party".
Mr Cowen acknowledged the turbulent mood in the party last night when he said he recognised the concerns "regarding the election".
"It's my duty as leader to gauge the issues that people are worried about, and for me to make my assessment in the best interest of the party," he said.
Mr Cowen had bought time yesterday by postponing the weekly parliamentary party meeting to 3pm. He used it to call in his cabinet ministers for discussions and then told the parliamentary party meeting he intended to stay on as Taoiseach and had never thought about resigning.
"There is no vacancy, there is no probationary period, I am the leader of the party," he said.
Government chief whip John Curran said if any TDs had concerns about the leadership, there were rules for dealing with these.
Any motion of no confidence required two days' notice and 18 signatures.
If Mr Cowen is replaced, it could lead to the General Election taking place sooner than the expected timeframe of mid to late March.