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Lise Hand: Micheal's rebel yell resonates like a gentle whisper as Brian throws down gauntlet

FINALLY it looked as if a dust-covered, rusty gauntlet would be flung down at the feet of Brian Cowen. And fittingly it was fated to bear the red of the Rebel county.

At 7.45pm yesterday it appeared as if Micheal Martin was set to hurl his customary caution to the wind and set sail across the Rubicon.

Well, he did announce a challenge to Brian's leadership of Fianna Fail but he didn't quite hurl himself overboard. He still remains a member of the officer class despite launching a mutiny against the captain.

It was a peculiarly polite sort of start to a power struggle.

Everything was being done more in sorrow than in anger. Brian described Micheal and himself as "excellent friends, good friends, good colleagues". And Micheal bigged up Brian's "integrity", adding (more in sorrow than in anger), "I don't like being in this position from a personal perspective".

Moreover, Micheal had offered the Taoiseach his resignation yesterday, but Brian told him there was no need for such a dramatic gesture.

So, for some inexplicable reason, the minister chose to remain within the Cabinet, in a clear case of wanting to have one's Merc and drive it too. But amid the fog of war, at least -- at last -- it's apparent that the battlelines are being drawn.

So much for the Sabbath being a day of rest. The confusion continued unabated as Sunday wore on. Tanaiste Mary Coughlan had popped up on RTE's 'This Week' sounding a bit head-melted by the madness, to announce that the Taoiseach's "consultative process" which had been conducted with all the speed of an exhausted snail, had finally come to an end.

More hours passed. Was he penning a tear-stained resignation letter? Or was he busily firing those who had so much as looked crossways at him over the past few febrile days?

Eventually, in late afternoon, the Taoiseach arrived into the Alexander Hotel, flanked by his loyal buddy Mary Coughlan and chief whip John Curran.

The three of them looked a bit forlorn as they huddled around the podium.

Word had filtered out of Brian's planned course of action, but still nobody knew for sure.

And for several long minutes into his statement no one -- not the roomful of journalists nor the bewildered viewers glued to the telly -- was any the wiser.

But, finally, seven minutes after he began speaking, he reached the bottom line of the matter.

"Having consulted with my party colleagues, and having reflected on the current and future challenges, I have come to the conclusion that I should continue to lead the party. I believe this is in the best interest of stability of the Government, the country and our party," he declared.

But there was a twist. "I believe that any issue regarding my leadership of Fianna Fail should be resolved immediately. I have therefore decided to place a motion of confidence in my leadership before next Tuesday's parliamentary party meeting. The vote will be by secret ballot. By taking this initiative, I believe I am acting in the best interest of the party and its membership, and I am confident of the outcome," he revealed.

Now this was an unexpected move. But which is it? A canny, strategically inspired, Enda Kenny-style gambit to out-manoeuvre the heave merchants, or a desperate, last-gasp gamble akin to a punch-drunk punter putting the deeds of his house, the contents of his bank account and the keys of his Ferrari on his lucky number on a roulette wheel in Vegas?

IT'S impossible to tell -- but then very little about the last few days has made any sense. And now the Taoiseach was throwing the gauntlet down himself, taking the fight to the wannabe mutineers.

Within a couple of hours, Micheal Martin had scrambled together a press conference at the Burlington Hotel.

Standing alone at the podium, he explained, "I will, in accordance with my views, be voting against the motion of confidence.

"I have reluctantly concluded that, in these circumstances, Fianna Fail should change its leader before the election."

And the Corkman believes he has the numbers too. "Having talked to most members of the parliamentary party and many members of the party across the country I believe this is a widely held view."

He got his digs in though. His more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger challenge was because "the very survival of the party was at stake", and that preparations for the election were a shambles.

So now the fun and games, the counting of heads, the sniping and direct potshots begin.

But for now, it's Cork vs Offaly, Minister vs Taoiseach, Micheal the Communicator vs Brian the Gruff. Place your bets, the flag is raised.

At last, thanks be to God.

Irish Independent