Martin and Lenihan lining up to take Cowen's seat
FOREIGN Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and his Cabinet colleague Brian Lenihan have told supporters they will be candidates for the leadership of Fianna Fail when Brian Cowen stands down, the Irish Independent has learned.
Although it arose in private conversations, it is the first time Mr Martin has shown an interest in the party's leadership.
One senior party member said Mr Martin had indicated his willingness to run to a number of TDs, but that he would not directly challenge Mr Cowen.
Mr Martin could not be reached for a comment.
When asked about his leadership ambitions, a spokesman would only refer to an interview he gave to RTE's 'News at One' last week.
"The bottom line now in the country is what this is all about. I will do whatever I can in supporting the Taoiseach in getting the budget through. We have to focus on this issue," he said at the time.
Mr Cowen's leadership came under renewed attack from backbenchers yesterday after a poll put the party on 13pc -- three points behind Sinn Fein.
The Finance Minister has avoided direct questions about the leadership recently by saying there is no vacancy.
But he told TDs this week that he would be a contender to replace Mr Cowen.
"Brian would still harbour the wish to do what is best for Fianna Fail -- and if that means running, he will," he told the Irish Independent.
But like Mr Martin, it is understood Mr Lenihan will not directly challenge Mr Cowen.
Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin has already said she will put her name forward if there is a vacancy for the leadership.
A series of Fianna Fail backbenchers have said that the question of the leadership will arise during the Christmas break when they hope Mr Cowen will step down.
Mary O'Rourke TD, an aunt of Brian Lenihan, has said she hopes the controversy over the leadership will be addressed at a party meeting early in January.
However, Government Chief Whip John Curran has told TDs there is no opportunity for a party meeting early in January -- unless it is to address the leadership.
Under party rules, 18 TDs' signatures are required for a motion where the leadership can be discussed.
"If the 18 signatures were produced, Brian Cowen may decide to step down," one minister said. "But no one really knows how he would react to a challenge."
The Taoiseach has firmly stated he has no intention of standing down and wants to oversee the social welfare and finance bills through the Dail.
It is understood Mr Cowen would not contemplate being a caretaker Taoiseach after his party elected another leader.
Sources in the Green Party said they will not vote for another Taoiseach from Fianna Fail.
But with pundits extrapolating the loss of as many as 55 Fianna Fail seats from the latest Red C poll, backbenchers want a new leader before the election next year.
"Unless one of the leadership contenders directly challenge Mr Cowen, it is likely that he will lead us into the next election," one minister said.