Cowen flees to his home as party support wavers

RETREAT: Taoiseach considering future as pressure to quit mounts

Clodagh Sheehy

BRIAN COWEN has retreated home to Offaly to consider his future as his party's grassroots turn against him.

The embattled leader of Fianna Fail is understood to be seeking counsel from close friends amid mounting pressure on him to resign for the good of the party.

While the Taoiseach staunchly maintained yesterday that he would lead the party into the General Election, the push against him continues to grow in the wake of his botched reshuffle crisis.

Eamon O Cuiv, who has staunchly defended the Taoiseach in the past, refused to back him today and backbenchers waited to see if senior colleagues would push for a resignation.

As the uncertainty increases, the Green Party have not guaranteed to vote for the Government in the Labour Party's motion of no confidence vote in the Dail on Wednesday night.

A Green Party spokesman said last night that a general election was now only weeks away and the party's TDs and Senators would consider the Labour motion on Tuesday.

A party source said that these were not "ordinary times" and the party was evaluating the situation on a day-to-day basis.

Support for Mr Cowen was wavering, with TDs who backed him in this week's confidence motion now reconsidering their positions and a string of others who backed him refusing to answer calls or go on the record.

Defeated leadership challenger Micheal Martin urged the party's TDs to "think about what has happened and begin to chart a way forward very quickly". "Obviously the party are reflecting on what happened yesterday. It's never too late to do the right thing," he added.

But Mr Cowen has rejected any suggestion that he caused political chaos by his actions this week and said he had no intention of resigning.

"I have the support of my party, as confirmed by democratic decision last Tuesday, to lead this party into this Election and beyond. That is what I intend to do," said Mr Cowen. "The authority of my leadership remains."

Social Protection Minister Mr O Cuiv, who was also handed the Defence portfolio by Mr Cowen on Thursday, was clearly feeling the strain of the political upheaval of recent days as he was approached by journalists during a round of engagements in Galway yesterday.

Mr O Cuiv initially attempted to move away from reporters, but when asked for a few minutes to answer questions, he turned abrupt.

Did he still have confidence in Mr Cowen as Fianna Fail leader? "I have no comment," Mr O Cuiv said, before leaving abruptly.

Mr O Cuiv's reluctance to back Mr Cowen is a real sign the party membership has now turned on the Taoiseach.

Elsewhere, in a true sign of changing times, four ministers travelled together on a mini-bus to the North-South Ministerial Council meeting instead of the usual fleet of limos.

Mary Hanafin, Pat Carey, Brendan Smith and Green minister Eamon Ryan hired the minibus for their trip to Armagh, while Mr Cowen travelled in a black Mercedes.