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Kevin Doyle: Will Cowen survive to lead his battered army into battle?

THERE is no doubt that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will use the Fianna Fail think-in to try to convince unhappy backbenchers that he can lead them into the next election.

Despite repeated protestations from various heavyweights, Mr Cowen's leadership will come under the microscope over the next two days as TDs and senators weigh up the possibility of a heave.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has insisted that he will not make a move for the leadership, but a rump of backbenchers is still keen to keep his name in the ring.


But the reality is that there is little reason why he would want to split Fianna Fail and ultimately spark an early election.

Apart from the fact that he is incredibly bogged down in the banking mess and that his cancer hasn't gone away, Mr Lenihan can hardly be expected to want to lead a wounded army into a battle. He's already doing that with the country's finances.

So it is against that backdrop that the Fianna Fail family gathered in Galway today -- or at least most of them did.

Some are otherwise engaged and are expected to only show up tomorrow for what could be the most interesting family photograph in recent times. Quietly, some members of the parliamentary party don't want to be pictured alongside a lame duck Taoiseach and his band of merry backbenchers.

Others feel that the Galway gathering is akin to the largest political funeral they will ever attend.

In an attempt to hit the ground running, Mr Cowen spent the opening 25 minutes of today's activities addressing his parliamentary party.

He will also have a 15-minute monologue at the end of the conference tomorrow afternoon, when he can expect to have the largest audience.

Officially, the think-in is focusing on ways to tackle unemployment and stimulate the labour market.

Fianna Fail is keen to move away from the "election footing" agenda that was set by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny at his party's get-together in Waterford last week.

However, there is little doubt that all the main parties are gearing themselves up for an election. Willie O'Dea started his campaign on the Late Late Show on Friday night.

He also remarked that the three outstanding by-elections should take place early next year -- a very open comment that surprised many but was apparently sanctioned by people higher than Willie.

So whether Mr Cowen likes it or not, three things are going to follow him around Salthill like a bad smell over these two days.

Firstly Anglo and his handling of the economy will come under renewed scrutiny, even by those closest to him.

During a radio interview yesterday he insisted that he only became aware of the extent of the problems in August 2008, and he again tried to divert the blame to international factors.

"That was based on the information being provided to us both nationally and internationally," he said.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will be seen adopting a similar stance on RTE's Freefall programme tonight.


Secondly, the leadership issue -- while it's unlikely to come to a head, onlookers will be watching for tensions between the two camps.

And an election is coming.

The timing still has to be clarified but Fine Gael are certain in their belief that if the Government is forced to hold the by-elections that they can't win, then that is tantamount to calling a General Election. And that's the election that quite a few backbenchers fear will become a bloodbath.

Some years ago, when the Celtic Tiger was in the full flow, a photograph from the party's think-in featured a relaxed Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Mary Hanafin, sandals in hand, strolling along a sun-kissed beach on Inchydoney.

If we don't see similar images this year, it's not just because the weather's changed.