STRIFE OF BRIAN

BRIAN COWEN was facing renewed calls from his own party to quit last night after the Greens humiliated him by blocking new ministerial appointments and forcing him to bring forward the general election.

Just two days after voting confidence in his leadership, Fianna Fáil TDs turned their fire on the Taoiseach after he acquiesced to his coalition partners by shelving the appointments and naming March 11 as election day.

With the Government plunged into open warfare following the debacle, senior Cabinet ministers loyal to Mr Cowen were being urged by backbenchers to persuade the Taoiseach to step down.

Junior Minister Conor Lenihan publicly indicated Mr Cowen should consider his position, while another junior minister bluntly said: “The man has to go.”

At least one Fianna Fáil TD made attempts to gather the 18 signatures required to table a motion of no confidence in the party leader.

The extraordinary scenes unfolded after Mr Cowen’s proposed reshuffle descended into confusion and then chaos and sparked outrage in the Dáil.

The Taoiseach had six vacancies to fill following the resignations of Micheál Martin, because of his failed leadership challenge, and Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey, Tony Killeen and Batt O’Keeffe, because of their decision to retire at the election.

He had intended filling the vacancies with younger Fianna Fáil TDs, only for the Greens to object, saying it would send out “all of the wrong signals” so close to the election.

Fianna Fáil’s Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin agreed saying it would have been seen as a “very cynical move”.

A furious Mr Cowen was eventually forced to shelve the appointments and instead reassign the vacant portfolios to remaining members of Cabinet.

It meant Education Minister Mary Coughlan was also given responsibility for Health, while Justice went to Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith, Transport to Community Affairs Minister Pat Carey, Defence to Social Protection Minister Éamon Ó Cuív and Enterprise to Ms Hanafin.

But the matter did not end there because, following demands from the Greens to bring the election forward, Mr Cowen also named polling day as March 11, weeks earlier than Fianna Fáil had wanted.

And the coalition partners’ relationship sank to an all-time low with both sides accusing the other of misrepresenting a meeting at which the proposed reshuffle had been discussed on Wednesday.

Mr Cowen denied that the proposed reshuffle was an attempt at a political stroke and accused the Greens of interfering with his rights as Taoiseach by vetoing the appointments. But Green leader John Gormley said his party had been deeply dismayed by the proposed reshuffle, which had been presented to them almost as a “fait accompli”.

Mr Gormley also revealed he had first learned of Ms Harney’s resignation from his wife, who saw it on a news programme. He had similarly learned of the resignations of Messrs Ahern, Dempsey and Killeen, he said.

The Opposition said it was clear the Taoiseach had lost all authority and that the Government was in disarray.

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