Taoiseach insists he has support of Fianna Fáil TDs
Taoiseach Brian Cowen insisted today he will lead Fianna Fáil into the general election and beyond as he came under renewed pressure following his bungled attempt at a Cabinet reshuffle.
The Taoiseach yesterday announced a general election would be held on March 11th. The announcement followed extraordinary scenes in Dáil Éireann during which he attempted to appoint replacements for Cabinet ministers who had resigned in order to pave the way for a reshuffle.
Instead of appointing the new ministers, the Taoiseach was forced, under pressure from the Green Party, to reassign the vacant ministerial posts to serving members of the Cabinet.
“There was controversy yesterday, yesterday is past,” Mr Cowen said after a full plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council at its new offices in Armagh.
Mr Cowen said did not accept suggestions he had caused political “chaos” and insisted 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.”
He rejected claims that the Green Party had weakened his position by blocking his attempt to mount a Cabinet reshuffle in the face of an imminent election.
“The authority of my leadership remains, but what was involved yesterday was a refusal by the Green Party to support my entitlement and right as I saw it, based on the conventions of coalition governments, to put my team into the field for the fighting of this next election," Mr Cowen said.
“I will now obviously do that by the establishment of my own new front bench to deal with that issue and to prepare and fight those elections. So that issue is over."
Despite his protestations, Mr Cowen is facing further rumblings of discontent from within Fianna Fáil.
Former minister for foreign affairs Micheál Martin this afternoon called on party colleagues to reflect again on their support for the Taoiseach in Tuesday's confidence vote.
The Cork South Central TD, who resigned from Cabinet on Tuesday after his challenge to Mr Cowen failed, said there was "surprise, shock, disbelief and great concern" in the parliamentary party at the dramatic way in which yesterday’s ministerial appointments were handled. "My view is that it was an unwise and wrong thing to do because it was too short a time between now and the election itself," he said.
Declining to say whether or not he was considering a new heave against his party leader, he said his position on Mr Cowen’s leadership had been made clear at Tuesday's parliamentary party meeting. “Given what happened yesterday, I think it’s time for people to maybe just think about it for a short while and come to their own conclusions,” he said.“It’s never too late to do the right thing."
Mr Martin's constituency colleague Michael McGrath also called for Mr Cowen to reconsider his position. He said he had "no doubt" the majority view among the party - and the public - was that a change of leadership would benefit both the party and the country. He also said the majority of the party believed that having Mr Martin at the helm would improve their election chances.
Former minister for defence Willie O’Dea said this morning he would support another move against Mr Cowen’s leadership of Fianna Fáil. Minister of State Conor Lenihan repeated his call for the Taoiseach to resign, arguing that his botched reshuffle attempt had again raised questions about his leadership.
Mr Lenihan said it was known “as far back as Saturday” that the Greens were not willing to go along with the reshuffle. “We do need to take responsibility and accountability for unfortunate situations that we create ourselves. And, that’s why I’m asking Brian Cowen to resign," he told RTÉ today.
Mr O’Dea said the events of recent days increased the party's chances of "electoral annihilation" and questioned whether the Taoiseach was “the right man” to lead it into the general election. He said the attempt to appoint new ministers was being perceived by the public “as a grubby stroke to advance Fianna Fáil’s electoral interests”.
The Limerick East TD said he had been told by some colleagues who supported Mr Cowen in Tuesday evening’s vote of confidence that they have now changed their minds.
“Now it is really up to them. If they want to make a move, I’ll support that," Mr O’Dea told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “It is up to them to reverse the situation that they created by voting, in my view, the wrong way."
Mr O’Dea said such move was “worth a gamble” due to the risk of “electoral catastrophe” for Fianna Fáil.
A senior TD who has been consistently loyal to Mr Cowen last night described the Taoiseach’s behaviour as “unfathomable” and expressed the hope that he would now stand down from the leadership of the party.
“We’ve tried our best in the last few years to go in behind him. I got all sorts of abuse for supporting him, and in the last 48 hours he’s ripped the heart out of it. He’s destroyed the party tonight. They’d have no difficulty getting the 18 signatures now. I imagine there’ll be some sort of a move against him. I hope he doesn’t fight it.”