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Can Cowen survive as Garglegate row refuses to go away?

BRIAN Cowen's grip on the leadership of Fianna Fail looks increasingly shaky today as Cabinet ministers revealed concerns among some backbench colleagues.

The Taoiseach could face the biggest test of his political career as ministers, while publicly supporting him, admit that there is growing unease.

Mr Cowen insists he has full party support, but the fallout from the Morning Ireland interview refuses to go away.

Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has revealed that "worried" backbench TDs had been in touch with him.

"Obviously there are people, you know, who are worried about what happened on Tuesday," he said stressing at the same time that the issues facing the country were to serious "for us to be diverted by, in effect, a party row at this stage".

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin repeated his view that "lessons had to be learned" and Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin pulled no punches, saying people expected senior ministers to be able to communicate properly.

"Certainly people around the country who are looking for hope, looking for a bit of light as to how things are going to improve, didn't get that the other day and they are expecting that," she added.

Last night the Taoiseach was met by protesters as he arrived in Sligo to address the local Chamber of Commerce annual dinner. One shop window in the centre of the town had been transformed into a mock bar with a life-sized model of the Taoiseach sitting at a table clutching a pint

An angry group of over 100 had waited for two hours to demand a response from Mr Cowen and the Government about the future of Sligo General Hospital.

Mr Cowen yesterday tried to restore public confidence, saying he would be "a bit more cautious in terms of that aspect of how I conduct my social life".

"I have the full support of parliamentary party, they support the Government, they know that we have a job to do and we have to get on with it," he insisted. Referring to the Morning Ireland interview, he added: "I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill either, I think that really the matter is closed at this stage and I don't think there is much more to be said about it."

Green Party leader John Gormley admitted the Morning Ireland controversy was a distraction from the Coalition's work, but added that he accepted the Taoiseach's apology.


Meanwhile, golfer Philip Walton, who was mimicked by the Taoiseach this week, has issued a challenge to Brian Cowen to take him on in a game of golf and the Taoiseach has accepted.

Walton had expressed annoyance about Mr Cowen doing an impression of the golfer at the now infamous Galway booze-up. But now he says the storm had got "out of hand" and he did not want "to be used as a political pawn" to bring down the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach has responded to the challenge saying he'd "love to play with his golfing hero".