| 2.1°C Dublin

Sam Smyth: Winner takes all in tussle for party hearts and minds

They could charge a premium rate for tickets to witness the showdown between Brian Cowen and Micheal Martin at the Fianna Fail parliamentary party meeting tomorrow.

Although it will be conducted in public through the Fianna Fail version of the Queensbury Rules, in the privacy of the party rooms it could descend to a bare-knuckle brawl where the winner takes all.

Most students of knockabout politics would back a bruiser like Brian Cowen to win any roughhouse contest over the unfailingly polite Martin. Facing into an election where they face oblivion, Mr Martin's touchy-feely manner may coax more voters to put a tick at a Fianna Fail candidate -- and persuade sitting FF TDs to back him.

But if he had resigned his ministerial seat at his press conference in Dublin last night, it would have demonstrated hunger and passion. And if leading Fianna Fail is Mr Martin's ultimate ambition, he has yet to match his words with action.

His reason for not standing down was that Mr Cowen didn't think it was necessary and that immediately put Mr Martin on the wrong end of a master-slave relationship.

Mr Cowen seized the initiative yesterday at a press conference where he announced that he intended leading his party into the next election. The Taoiseach looked confident, even relaxed, in a Dublin hotel accepting that there was an "issue" over the leadership.

Shrewd lawyers don't ask questions unless they already know the answer and Cowen seemed very sure that he would win the confidence motion in himself tomorrow.

Usually a stickler for procedures, he ignored party rules where a leader would only face a confidence vote if a party member put down a motion. And, throwing caution and precedent to the winds, he will table that motion in himself.

Mr Cowen can be a scary and formidable figure when he is castigating an opponent but he is even more frightening when heaping affection on them.

Mr Martin remained a close friend, insisted Mr Cowen, who was in gladiatorial mode and seemed ready to beat Mr Martin to death with bonhomie and hearty banter.

In his epic phone-in over the weekend, when he spoke to all the members of the parliamentary party at least once, Mr Cowen listened more than he spoke. According to friends of Mr Cowen, a majority of his colleagues said they would prefer someone else to lead the party into the next election.

But faced with a choice of Mr Cowen or Mr Martin, a significant majority of them said they would prefer to stick with Mr Cowen.

MR Cowen also spent a lot of time and energy canvassing the views of the eight or nine so-called youngblood TDs who were elected in 2007.

A number of them had made their views known that they wanted another leader to take the party into the election but were annoyed by their names being put forward as opposing the Taoiseach.

"Thomas Byrne and Michael McGrath were really annoyed at their names being put forward as leading a heave against Brian Cowen," said another of the youngblood TDs last night.

He added: "They blamed people in Micheal Martin's camp for that and they decided that whatever their views about Brian Cowen's leadership, they were not persuaded by the alternative."

Other friends of Mr Cowen said that the Taoiseach had another agenda when he decided to defend his leadership -- his good name and reputation.

If he had succumbed to the pressures to stand down, it would have given credence to the serious allegations made about him in his dealings with Sean FitzPatrick.

The subtext of opposition jibes was that he had included Anglo in the blanket guarantee for banks because of his friendship, which Mr Cowen angrily dismissed.

Although there was not a shred of evidence to support taunts that he had pressured the NTMA to put funds into Anglo, it was the subliminal message in criticism of Mr Cowen's handling of the banking crisis.

Even his most determined opponents in opposition and those Fianna Failers who oppose him as leader agree that Mr Cowen is a man of integrity.

And he is odds-on favourite to lead his party into the next election -- the question now is if Martin will be the next leader of Fianna Fail.

Irish Independent