'Stay away Cowen' say FF as Ned joins rebels
Mary Wallace is latest FF politician running scared from public wrath
Taoiseach Brian Cowen will be told to "stay away" by many Fianna Fail candidates in the General Election as the party faces a meltdown at the polls greater than even the most pessimistic commentators had anticipated.
Last night, in a surprise development, Fianna Fail TD Ned O'Keeffe called on Mr Cowen to resign, stating that he had lost the confidence of the public.
Mr O'Keeffe had previously called for the resignation of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan.
Until now regarded as a Cowen loyalist, Mr O'Keeffe's intervention is being interpreted by his critics as an attempt to distance himself from the leadership to ensure his own re-election.
Also yesterday, the announcement of the departure of former junior minister Mary Wallace brought to 12 the number of sitting Fianna Fail TDs, including three members of the Cabinet, who will not contest the election.
In an indication of the deep level of public cynicism, a Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll today finds that more than half the public (53 per cent) believe such TDs are not contesting the election in order to take advantage of existing pension benefits.
But almost a quarter (21 per cent) of respondents also believe that Fianna Fail TDs have chosen to signal their departure now rather than face the anger of the electorate in three months' time.
The pervasive angst among sitting Fianna Fail TDs may help explain the reluctance of many to be associated with Mr Cowen, who was Minister for Finance and Taoiseach in the lead-up to and during the economic crisis.
Once regarded as the "darling" of Fianna Fail and credited with playing a significant role in helping the party win the 2007 election, Mr Cowen's star has fallen so dramatically that in some quarters he is now thought to be a liability.
The Taoiseach is felt to be prevaricating over the setting of a date for the election; speculation is mounting that it may not now be held until closer to Easter, with the date of April 15 mooted.
However, our poll has found that a massive 79 per cent majority want the election before the end of March: furthermore, a huge 72 per cent want the next leader of Fianna Fail to exclude current members of the Cabinet.
Mr Cowen's immediate priority will be to attempt to staunch the haemorrhage in support for Fianna Fail and try to limit the damage at the polls.
But it was clear last night that he faces the prospect of humiliation now that a significant number of Fianna Fail TDs have indicated they would prefer to run semi-independent campaigns rather than be associated with Mr Cowen -- an unprecedented development for a sitting Taoiseach.
"I don't want him here," a senior Fianna Fail TD said yesterday. Another said: "When he goes to America for St Patrick's Day, he should stay there". Yet another added: "If he comes down I will have to put up with him for a couple of hours".
Yesterday the Taoiseach's supporters claimed that Mr Cowen was being lined up as a "scapegoat" for what will undoubtedly be the most difficult election for Fianna Fail in living memory.
Mr Cowen's allies remain convinced that the true level of Fianna Fail support will be higher than that recorded in recent opinion polls. A Red C poll last week showed Fianna Fail running neck and neck with Sinn Fein.
The poll for Paddy Power found: Fine Gael (35 per cent), Labour (21 per cent), Sinn Fein (14 per cent), Fianna Fail (14 per cent), Greens (4 per cent), and Others (12 per cent).
While Mr Cowen's instinct would be to take to the hustings, he is being advised to run a "media campaign" in what would be a departure from Fianna Fail's strategy in recent elections.
There is opinion within Fianna Fail that Mr Cowen should announce an election date but delay the dissolution of the Oireachtas, a move which would see him fight the first weeks of the campaign in the Dail and through the media.
This would allow the Taoiseach to focus attention on the man who regards himself as the Taoiseach-in-waiting, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, and to concentrate on the policy divergence in the prospective Fine Gael/Labour government.
However, Mr Cowen's detractors have accused him of "making a bad situation worse" by failing to properly prepare Fianna Fail for the election, leading some observers to believe that Fianna Fail is in such disarray that the scale of its meltdown could be even greater than thought.
As of now, Fianna Fail is said not to have an agreed manifesto, a director of elections, or even an election HQ. A senior Fianna Fail figure yesterday said: "Cowen is on his own in the bunker. There's no plan, no strategy and, worst of all, no money."
The Sunday Independent understands that Fianna Fail debt peaked last year at more than €3.7m, but was later reduced to its current level of just over €3m.
Nevertheless, senior figures in Fine Gael yesterday warned that Fianna Fail was "never more dangerous" than when its back was to the wall. One source said that nothing should be taken for granted "until the votes were counted".
Last night Mr O'Keeffe, said that while he fully accepted that Mr Cowen had the "best interests of the country at heart" it was abundantly clear that the time had come for him to resign. "The country is experiencing the worst economic crisis of our lifetime but we do not have the strong leadership that is required to address the many major problems," he said.
He added that the future of the country was being squandered because, among other things, there was "still no overall strategic plan for the banking sector two years after the crisis began".