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Sam Smyth: Cowen opponents whisper but are afraid to strike

Brian Cowen decided to speak directly to the public on RTE's 'Six One News' last night to cut out other media re-interpreting his message.

Yet for all his apparent bullish confidence, Mr Cowen was still looking over his shoulder at the pack of dissidents who are determined to bring him down.

Although he didn't -- and wouldn't -- say it, Mr Cowen's friends are now raising questions about the leadership contenders' courage and, well, leadership potential.

Are they willing to wound with a whispering campaign but afraid to strike and confront him directly in a bare-knuckle contest?

That is the rhetorical question posed by the Taoiseach's supporters message at yesterday's party meeting.

It was a theme taken up by others who attended the meeting -- but they want Mr Cowen to either stand down or be removed as leader.

"It's up to the ministers now," said a backbench Fianna Fail TD bristling with frustration at yesterday's failure to remove Brian Cowen as the party leader.

"If Micheal Martin or Brian Lenihan want to be leader of this party, then let them have the courage of their convictions and challenge the leader," he continued.

"They have nothing to lose," he added.

"'If they fail, it makes them favourite to win a future leadership election and if they win the party will get a bounce before the general election."

Neither the Minister for Finance nor the Minister for Foreign Affairs appear ready to make a move after yesterday's flaccid attempt at an uprising failed.

A significant number of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party are convinced they will win more seats if Brian Cowen doesn't lead the party into the election. They see no downside in changing leaders and a positive uplift from not having to explain Mr Cowen's leadership to voters on doorsteps.

When Mr Cowen's single-digit personal rating is sagging below the party's lowest standing in its history, TDs are convinced he is an electoral millstone.

The anatomy of this very Irish coup (failed) is very puzzling and reveals more incompetence and wishful thinking pretending to be a strategy than the icy logic of serious politicians plotting.

It began when over-enthusiastic gossips put it around that the two leading leadership contenders had spoken to the Taoiseach and asked him to consider his position as leader of Fianna Fail.

Then Cork East TD Ned O'Keeffe said that Fianna Fail could be returned with just a dozen seats if Mr Cowen led the party into the upcoming election.

Usually serious people believed that Brian Lenihan and Micheal Martin had put it up to Mr Cowen simply because they wanted to believe it.

Both ministers denied it and last night the Taoiseach was emphatic that no minister had asked him to consider his position as leader.

Yet the anti-Cowen faction in the Fianna Fail parliamentary party still believed last night that the wrong questions had been asked about the ministers meeting Mr Cowen.

Earlier backbenchers Thomas Byrne of Meath East and Michael McGrath of Cork South Central were credited with being central figures in a coup expected to topple the leader at yesterday's meeting.

Both of the Fianna Fail young blood TDs believe the party should skip a generation for its next leader -- but yesterday each convincingly denied being part of any conspiracy.

But the story of an imminent leadership heave took off like a bush fire on Wednesday night after Mr Cowen's revelations earlier in the Dail chamber.

Another director of Anglo Irish Bank and a member of the board of the Central Bank attending the gathering at Druids Glen golf resort set off competing salvos of speculation and gossip in the corridors, bars and restaurants of Leinster House.

The BBC and UTV dispatched reporters to Dublin and international media began speculating on Mr Cowen's leadership prospects.

It was against this background that Mr Cowen postponed the midday meeting of the parliamentary party to 3pm and made his leadership, which was not on the agenda, his No 1 priority.

Only one of more than 60 ministers and TDs at the meeting directly confronted him: "Put down a motion of confidence in yourself," said Kildare South TD Sean Power.

Mr Cowen told him that there were procedures to remove a leader that involved collecting 18 signatures and putting down a motion of no confidence.

Noel Flynn, TD for Cork North-Central, asked Mr Cowen specifically if ministers had gone to him earlier in the week to discuss his leadership of the party. The Taoiseach categorically denied that any minister had asked him about his leadership and made it clear that he expected to lead Fianna Fail into the next election.

Mr Cowen will meet party colleagues over the next few days and the parliamentary party will meet again next week.

If there is no successful challenge to his leadership by next week's parliamentary party meeting, it is believed that Brian Cowen will lead Fianna Fail into the next election.

A week really is a long time in politics.

Irish Independent