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Cowen on the brink as challengers up the ante

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen's leadership of Fianna Fail is set to be decided over the next 24 hours.

He is expected to have completed his consultations with the party's TDs by this evening and Mr Cowen said he would then decide what was in the best interests of the party.

Yesterday, he got the views of around 40 TDs and senators of his parliamentary party, speaking to most on the phone but also meeting some in person.

Further exchanges were taking place today as it emerged there are now four possible contenders for the leadership after Minister for Social Protection Eamon O Cuiv, hinted that he may put his name forward.


Mr Cowen, in his conversations yesterday, was asking TDs if Fianna Fail could win more seats if he wasn't the leader going into the General Election.

There was also speculation that Mr Cowen could continue on as a caretaker Taoiseach if he was replaced as party leader -- though observers said this would also hasten the timing of the election.

After a day of frenzied political activity yesterday, there was divided opinion among ministers over the desirability of Mr Cowen remaining in power.

Key allies such as Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Innovation Batt O'Keeffe were backing him, while Tourism Minister and contender for the top job Mary Hanafin warned of "unease" in the the party over Mr Cowen's continued leadership.

Ms Hanafin, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin and now Mr O Cuiv are all possible candidates to replace Mr Cowen as leader.

"If the grassroots of the party came to me and if they believed I was the best person for the job, of course, I'd have to think about it and of course, I'd be interested in it," Mr O Cuiv said.

However, Batt O'Keeffe said he was happy that a "very large majority" within the party still supported Mr Cowen fully and he said he believed Mr Cowen would lead the party into the general election.

The Minister of State for Science, Technology and Innovation, Conor Lenihan said he had not yet formed a view about whether Brian Cowen should continue to lead the party.

But he said last night that among those both inside and outside his constituency that he had consulted with, the majority view is that it is appropriate for the party to change its leader.

Tanaiste Mary Coughlan said she supports the leadership of the Taoiseach, but agreed with Minister Hanafin that the consultation process should be concluded as quickly as possible.

Ms Coughlan said there was a process in place in Fianna Fail if anyone wanted to challenge the leadership but so far this had not happened.

Concerns over Mr Cowen's leadership came to a head this week after he was publicly grilled in the Dail on Wednesday on his contacts with disgraced Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean FitzPatrick.

Under pressure, he revealed the names of two other business chiefs who joined him and Mr FitzPatrick for a post-golf dinner in Druids Glen.

These were Gary McGann, chief executive of Smurfit Kappa, who was a director of Anglo at the time and Alan Gray, an economist appointed to the Central Bank board by Mr Cowen.

The pressure continued to pile on after Anglo's former boss David Drumm alleged Mr Cowen had urged the National Treasury Management Agency to bail out the bank in April, 2008 when he was Finance Minister.

Mr Cowen's spokes-man dismissed the claims and former NTMA chief executive Michael Somers said he could not recall being ordered by Mr Cowen to deposit funds with Anglo.