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Lise Hand: A battle for hearts of people who just don't have any

Mary Hanafin, the Minister for Fun, sat like a tight-lipped Dun Laoghaire Sphinx, clinging onto the fence

MICHAEL Martin faced a wall of cameras massed on the plinth. He had no regrets. "One has to make a stand," he said simply.

In the end, he alone among the senior cabinet ministers stepped up to the mark and stuck to his convictions.

Other colleagues marked out as being dissatisfied with Brian Cowen's leadership failed to cover themselves with any sort of glory.

They may hang on to their Mercs for the last two or three months of this Dail, but it's at the expense of any credibility.

For yesterday, this Huggy Wuggy Heave took on a few unexpected twists and turns.

Just when it looked as if Brian Cowen had this peculiarly polite battle in the bag, he then unleashed his secret WMD (Weapon of Micheal's Destruction) -- who, alas, served only to blow himself up and aggravate hitherto quiescent backbenchers in the process.

For all morning it was well-flagged that Brian Lenihan was due take his seat in the gladiatorial arena and Caesar-like give his thumbs-up to his chosen warrior.

The dissident backbench TDs were looking forward to this -- after all, hadn't the Finance Minister moved among them for some time now, leaving in his wake the impression that he was mentally picking new curtains for the Taoiseach's office?

Oh, they were going to savour this moment when their man declared that he couldn't support the Taoiseach in that evening's confidence vote.

He would sound the trumpet, and they would rally to his side, wandering sheep no more.

They had no doubts. When Kildare South's Sean Power was asked at lunchtime on the radio how he'd react if Brian Lenihan did the exact opposite, the deputy's reply was swift.

"I'd be surprised and shocked," he said.

And a short while later Sean was surprised and shocked. For the Finance Minister delivered his thumbs-up to the Taoiseach on RTE's 'News at One'.

Brian chose to remind the country of some of his leader's low-points.

"I make no secret of the fact that I was unhappy with what happened down in Galway in connection with the interview and with recent developments in relation to a game of golf he had," said Brian.

Then he proceeded with the arduous business of backing Biffo.

But what about the belief among some of the Foot-soldiers of Destiny that he had been fomenting rebellion? Brian was aghast at the suggestion.

"I made it clear at all stages that I was very flattered at their interest in me being leader of the party," he explained, "but I made it clear that current financial matters made it impossible for me to disrupt the good working relationship."

You see, he was Lenny the Little Engine Who could. He was too busy saving the economy to save his party. Well, very shortly afterwards poor Lenny certainly had egg on his face.

Within minutes Carlow-Kilkenny deputy and Cowen critic John McGuinness was spitting nails all over the airwaves. "He did encourage dissent, he did encourage us to look at the numbers," the rebel all-but yelled.

Lenny insisted anyone who thought he was part of any plot was sorely mistaken, but some of the backbench blood was up.

Suddenly that temperature soared around Leinster House, adding a bit of an edge to what up to this point had been a civilised gentleman's disagreement between Cowen and Martin.

And what of Micheal? Well he was probably figuring out what to do should the vote go against him.

What about the other minister who had been semi-rattling sabres? Where was Mary Hanafin, who only a week earlier had thrice denied to offer unequivocal confidence in her boss during an interview? Alas, the Lady had Vanished. Unlike Micheal, who at least nailed his colours firmly to the mast.

The previous night on RTE's Frontline show, the Minister for Fun sat like a tight-lipped Dun Laoghaire Sphinx, clinging on to the fence. She would have her say at the parliamentary party meeting and that was the end of it.

It was almost difficult to remember that inside the chamber, Dail business was proceeding apace.

"Nobody is minding the shop, Taoiseach," said a disgusted Eamon Gilmore.

Just after 5.30pm, nuggets of information became to trickle out. The Taoiseach spoke for 40 minutes, and then Micheal gave it welly in a 10-minute speech. "Electrifying," whispered one admiring Cowenite.

They had to take a break for a vote. The speeches went on at length -- except for the Dun Laoghaire Sphinx.

Haiku Hanafin gave a one-minute speech in which she said she would vote "in accordance with her conversation with the Taoiseach". Nice leadership there, Mary.

At 9.10pm there was white smoke over Leinster House. The Taoiseach had won the confidence motion.

The ballots were shredded, and the scramble began to try and put some semblance of unity on this tattered, demoralised party.

And Micheal brought the curtain down on this oddest of heaves with a distinct lack of recrimination.

He had tendered his immediate resignation to the Taoiseach and then the pair of them shared a lift back downstairs together.

But any show of unity is illusory, and the issue of leadership will return with a vengeance after the election.

And next time around, after the recent carry-on of some of the leadership contenders, the knives will be out for sure.

Irish Independent