Cowen calls for party loyalty while admitting some failures

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen has appealed to his grumbling backbenchers for loyalty while conceding he got things wrong as leader of Fianna Fáil.

Faced with angry protests from farmers and the prospect of his Government falling apart as it tries to push through its most difficult budget, he said with the support of his parliamentary party he was “up for the challenge”.

In the keynote speech at the party’s annual think-in, Mr Cowen said he had to perform better but asked his colleagues to give him time to justify his election as leader. He told the gathering, on the banks of Lough Ree, they had just come through the worst of the crisis.

“In May of last year, you elected me Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil. And you supported my nomination as Taoiseach. Since then, we have weathered the toughest storm to hit our country since Independence.

“This party has been tested and I have been tested – tested hard.

“I want to be honest with you. I know I have not got everything right. No leader ever does. I know I need to do better and I am determined to justify to the last ounce the great confidence this party has reposed in me,” he said.

But Mr Cowen said his party and the wider public needed to “get real” on the decisions it will have to take in the months ahead.

And if they do, he said the country’s fortunes could be turned around during the lifetime of the Government.

After the bulk of yesterday’s party debates were over, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said there had been discussion among the TDs and senators about the cuts he would have to announce in the budget.

However, he said the thrust of contributions were focused on ensuring public agencies delivered better value for money for the budgets they are allocated.

And he denied the Green Party had got more concessions on key legislative measures than his own party. Backbenchers had also been listened to, he said, but had not been as inclined to announce the changes as the junior coalition partner was last week.

Today he will brief the backbenchers on the NAMA legislation which he will bring to the Dáil tomorrow.

Yesterday’s events at the Hodson Bay Hotel began with a heated protest by more than 200 farmers who burst through security barriers as Mr Lenihan arrived in his ministerial car.

Some farmers were wrestled to the ground but backed off when batons were raised.

The Irish Farmers’ Association’s rural development chairmen Tom Turley said the protesters had not travelled to Roscommon to become violent.

“We got knocked down but we got up again and we me made our point here this morning,” Mr Turley told a rally outside the hotel.

Dozens of uniformed and pubic order gardaí had been deployed. And the hotel was cordoned off with two check-points between it and the the main road.

Superintendent Aidan Glacken said the security presence would remain in place for the three days the parliamentary party was gathered at Hodson Bay.

He said the incident with the farmers was “slightly unsavory” but sufficient resources had been allocated to protect people’s right to protest while keeping the Fianna Fáil politicians safe.

The Hodson Bay Hotel was locked-down following the protests. A small but structured demonstration by Athlone IT students against third-level fees was kept in the coach park in the afternoon.

They brought 600 signed emigration forms to indicate their willingness to leave the country rather than pay for a third-level education.

Two representatives were invited in to meet Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe and were told he had brought five fees’ proposals to cabinet but had yet to make a decision on the preferred option.


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