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No passion or grandstanding in a low-key victory

TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern had left last night's meeting to decide the fate of Taoiseach Brian Cowen before the votes had even been counted.

He was seen leaving at around 9pm with colleagues in a black Mercedes and declined requests for comments, just saying "They're still counting".

But just over 10 minutes later, it was announced that Mr Cowen had won the vote of confidence in his leadership.

Mr Cowen opened the meeting at 5.45pm. He spoke for around 30 minutes and concentrated on defending his leadership of the party and the government policies he had presided over.

He was followed by Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, who spoke for just less than 10 minutes about the need for a "new departure".

Both Mr Martin and Mr Cowen emphasised their personal friendship at the meeting.

Even those TDs who had publicly pledged support for Mr Cowen acknowledged that Mr Martin had delivered the better performance. They said his arguments were well rehearsed and well structured, and that he had given a concise outline of the party's difficulties.

The vast majority of TDs present said the atmosphere of the meeting was cordial and largely without rancour or bitterness.

They contrasted it with the intimidatory atmosphere present during the heaves against Charlie Haughey back in the early 1980s.

"There was no blood on the floor," one TD said. "There was nobody kicking anybody in the balls in there."

Kildare South TD Sean Power was strongest in his criticism of Mr Cowen, while another rebel TD, Carlow-Kilkenny's John McGuinness, was described as being measured.

Mr Power focused on what he described as Mr Cowen's failings in the areas of judgment, leadership and communications.

He said Mr Cowen was "haunted" by his time as Finance Minister, when decisions which caused the "ills" of the country were made.

The meeting was disrupted at 7pm by a vote on the Childcare Amendment Bill. Fianna Fail TDs made their way from the party rooms to the Dail chamber and it gave opposition TDs -- as madly curious as everybody else -- a chance to cross the floor of the house and chat about what was going on. The Fianna Fail TDs then returned to the Fianna Fail room on the fifth floor, with others hanging around for a brief while.

One of the first to speak when they returned after the vote was Tourism and Culture Minister Mary Hanafin, widely seen as a leadership contender.

But Ms Hanafin, who had yet to declare which way she would vote, surprised most of the room by only speaking briefly and quietly. Her speech was described as being just one minute in length.

She told the room that she would "be voting in accordance with my conversation with the Taoiseach", which most took to be against the motion of confidence.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who announced his support for Mr Cowen at lunchtime, did not speak.

More TDs spoke, including Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv, with the total reaching around 15 by the time Mr Cowen began to wrap up just after 8.30pm.

Mr O Cuiv was one of the very few who got a spontaneous round of applause. "It was almost a leadership speech," said one Dublin TD.

Galway East TD Noel Treacy was described as being his "usual passionate self". He spoke powerfully to remind TDs how damaging internal contests can be.

Mr Treacy's speech was followed up by Mr Cowen's closing statement, which was widely seen as being stronger than his opening contribution.

He said he was quite prepared to stand over his good name as a politician -- which has taken a battering in the past week since the disclosure of his golfing trip with former Anglo boss Sean FitzPatrick.

The TDs then moved to a separate room to cast their votes in the secret ballot, watched by tellers Cavan-Monaghan TD Dr Rory O'Hanlon and Cork North West TD Michael Moynihan.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern is recuperating from a hip operation in hospital and a postal vote was accepted for him.

The votes were counted and there was a round of applause when party chairman John Browne announced the result at 9.10pm. Mr Martin addressed the meeting once more and pleaded for unity. However, he made no reference to his plan to resign as minister -- and TDs were surprised to hear about it afterwards.

Although the ballots were shredded after counting, members of the Martin camp claimed the result had been 37-34. Members of the Cowen camp described this as ridiculous and stated their belief that the margin of victory for the Taoiseach was over 30.

Irish Independent