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Fionnan Sheahan: FF's difficulties go beyond their leader


Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday brought up his own leadership with his own party, even though nobody actually brought up his leadership with him.

Mr Cowen spent hours in Government Buildings consulting with senior ministers who were ringing around backbenchers assessing the lie of the land.

Fianna Fail backbenchers reported getting phone calls from Tony Killeen, Mary Coughlan and John Curran sussing them out ahead of the meeting.

The postponement from 12 noon to 3pm "threw oil on a fire" and ensured that ministers and TDs alike firmly believed Mr Cowen was resigning, according to a minister.

"Once the postponement came the conclusion drawn was he was stepping down," the minister said.

"People were absolutely stunned at the meeting. People had thought he was going to go. As was said at the meeting, it was offering him the dignity of resigning without being forced," another minister said.

"Everybody would prefer a resolution without a revolution."

But Mr Cowen did call the bluff of those wanting a heave, according to another party figure.

"He snookered the parliamentary party. By deferring the meeting, a lot of fellas weren't there or had to go away early. He short-circuited the meeting," a backbencher said.

The Taoiseach had a steady stream of ministers in and out of his office over the course of the morning, including the three aforementioned loyalists, plus Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern and Batt O'Keeffe.

Despite the anger among ministers over Mr Cowen's handling of the revelations of contacts with former Anglo Irish Bank chief Sean FitzPatrick and other leading figures from the bank, his confidantes did not believe he should resign. "A lot of ministers who made contact with him said never mind contacts with Seanie Fitz.

"Fellas were saying to him: 'For f*** sake, you have taken tough decisions. What would you be resigning for over this'," a source said.

In fact, several senior coalition sources were of the belief Mr Cowen's main problem was not the admissions of dealings with Anglo bosses. Fianna Fail being rooted at 14pc in the latest opinion poll and showing no sign of a resurgence in support with a General Election imminent is his main problem.

"I'm not sure the last 72 hours had anything to do with it," a minister said.

Yet, nobody wants to plunge the knife into his back.

"It's up to the contenders now. Either put up or shut up," said a backbench TD.

Pointing to the lack of intervention from the leadership contenders and the lacklustre approach to the crisis, the same veteran Fianna Fail TD said if an alien walked into the parliamentary party meeting yesterday they would be convinced the Climate Change Bill was the main item on the agenda.

Among their colleagues, Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin are viewed as being at the end of the road with Mr Cowen, but unwilling or unable to press the Taoiseach out of office -- possibly out of fear.

"He who wields the knife doesn't get the prize," a junior minister said.

And there is a perception the contenders are so busy watching each others' moves that they're not putting enough effort into focusing on removing Mr Cowen.

Notably, Mr Cowen isn't putting forward a motion of confidence in himself: "There is no one who has been not showing confidence in my leadership."

None of his senior ministers are rushing out to express confidence in him and the Green Party is also holding back.

Last night, Fianna Fail TDs got a message inviting them to make an appointment with the Taoiseach to discuss their views.

"For those who would like to organise a meeting with the Taoiseach, please contact Nick Reddy (the Taoiseach's private secretary)," said the text message.

Just weeks away from a General Election, where the very future of the party is in jeopardy, the party is debating Mr Cowen's leadership again.

Fianna Fail TD Sean Power said the party didn't have time for the continued deliberations with polling day approaching fast.

"You're sleepwalking us into the election. It's time to make up your mind," he said at the meeting.

Popular Fianna Fail TD Charlie O'Connor warned a leadership election campaign would be "extremely divisive" and would distract from the real issues.

Opinion was divided within Fianna Fail last night over whether Mr Cowen would stand down voluntarily in the coming days as the consultation period offered him a get-out clause.

Regardless of Mr Cowen's decision on the leadership of the party, Fianna Fail still has plenty of work to do to get ready for the campaign.

"Here we are two months from a general election and this is a mess. There's no manifesto, no election plan, nothing," a minister said.

Mr Cowen's critics are expecting a change of leader will change the party's fortunes.

But Fianna Fail's problems go way beyond their leader.

Irish Independent