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Fionnan Sheahan: Lenihan U-turn damages future bid to lead party

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen now knows who he can trust around the Cabinet table -- or more to the point who he can't trust.

And the events of last week which sparked Mr Cowen's leadership wobble, against the backdrop of a phantom heave, certainly make far more sense now.

At least Mr Cowen knows where he stands with Micheal Martin and can regard him as an honest broker. The same cannot be said of others.

The Foreign Affairs Minister was straight up with Mr Cowen last Monday week when he told the Taoiseach it was time for him to stand aside as Fianna Fail leader.

He followed through on these views this week when he opposed the Taoiseach's leadership of Fianna Fail, but has generally stuck to Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Mr Cowen's camp was puzzled by Mr Martin's timing last week, as all the indications were he was waiting until after the general election to contest the leadership.

But Mr Martin was watching what was happening on Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's side and was convinced a move was imminent in the wake of a poll showing Fianna Fail at 14pc and Mr Cowen being embroiled in controversy over contacts with Anglo chiefs.

"He was afraid he would get outmanoeuvred and Lenihan would grab it. Now Micheal is caught in the middle of the stage," a senior source said.

It is understood Mr Cowen and Mr Martin actually discussed Mr Lenihan's intentions during their meeting in Government Buildings.

"Part of that conversation was Micheal worried about Lenihan. That was part of what was being said in there. He wanted to do it after the election, but then he got worried about Lenihan. He was spooked on to the pitch and has now been caught.

"That all makes more sense today than it did last week," a source said.

The event that shifted the spotlight from Mr Martin to Mr Lenihan yesterday was the absolute confirmation the Finance Minister was holding meetings with Fianna Fail backbenchers about Mr Cowen's leadership.

The Finance Minister's manoeuvrings have been the source of a great deal of informed conjecture for quite some time.

Mr Lenihan benignly says he was simply expressing "concerns" about the party's standing in the polls and was not involved in any plot against Mr Cowen.

But Fianna Fail backbenchers feel they were egged on by Mr Lenihan and were led to the clear expectation he would be on board if a heave was launched.

Sean Power, John McGuinness and Michael Kennedy were exasperated by Mr Lenihan's stance -- but there was widespread annoyance across the board.

Mr McGuinness delivered a devastating blow as he said Mr Lenihan "did encourage dissent" among backbenchers against Mr Cowen, told them to "look at the numbers" and did "express an interest in the leadership".

Mr Lenihan made a severe miscalculation if he thought none of the disappointed dissidents would bite back, particularly those who felt they had been misled by him.

He admitted the infamous Garglegate interview at the Ardilaun Hotel, Galway, by the Taoiseach was one of the "lapses in judgment" by Mr Cowen. And he confirmed he has privately been expressing "concerns" about Fianna Fail's poll rating to backbenchers.

The spotlight shifted away from Mr Martin to Mr Lenihan.

Mr Cowen's supporters saw the testimony of Mr Lenihan's detractors as evidence he was "constantly trying to undermine" the Taoiseach.

"It's all to do with ambition. It's all about 'can I get an eye on the prize'," a source said.

Mr Lenihan and his supporters were adamant he had done nothing wrong and backbenchers had misinterpreted his intentions.

But the perception that Mr Lenihan, or his close circle, was fomenting a revolt did his reputation enormous damage and struck at his own longer term leadership prospects.

A Fianna Fail TD described Mr Lenihan as a "political contortionist tying himself up into knots".

The origin of Mr Cowen's sudden requirement to address his leadership emerged from widespread speculation last Wednesday night of an imminent leadership heave.

There was no motion of no confidence with 18 signatures circulating and there were no secret meetings of a large number of backbenchers in Buswells Hotel.

When the Leinster House rumour mill went into overdrive that night, most of the fingers of blame were pointing in the Lenihan family's direction -- rightly or wrongly.

Hence the astonishment sparked by the Finance Minister's announcement in favour of Mr Cowen.

Mr Lenihan's actions threw an unlikely lifeline to Mr Martin's future leadership challenge.

Mary Hanafin's fence-sitting did her no favours at all. Having gone the closest of all by refusing to express confidence in Mr Cowen last week, she then didn't have the courage of her convictions to follow through.

Whatever about the wider public, the party itself regarded her as being against Mr Cowen, so the calls for prospective leaders to stand up and be counted were also directed at her.

Knowing the game was up on this revolt yesterday, Mr Martin began firing shots in Mr Lenihan's direction.

He suggested yesterday in interviews that Mr Lenihan was talking to backbenchers for months. He also brought up the communications deficit in the week before the arrival of the IMF and EU teams to negotiate the international financial rescue package, where ministers were denying there was any bailout on the horizon.

The lack of acrimony in the current leadership debate cannot be guaranteed when the leadership comes up again, presumably after the general election. The events and non-events of the past week will be revisited if Mr Martin and Mr Lenihan square off.

But whether the greatly reduced batch of Fianna Fail TDs remaining at that stage will want anything to do with Mr Martin, Mr Lenihan and Ms Hanafin after their handling of this affair is really highly questionable.

The calls for the party to skip a generation when selecting a new leader will grow louder.

Irish Independent