Taoiseach Brian Cowen today dismissed claims that he sounded drunk or hungover in a live radio interview as a pathetic stunt by his opponents.
Mr Cowen insisted suggestions he was unfit for the morning broadcast were politically orchestrated.
“I think it’s a real new low in Irish politics,” he said.
The Taoiseach was challenged over his handling of an interview on RTE radio from his Fianna Fáil party’s annual ’think-in’ ahead of the new Dáil term.
Witnesses at the get-together in Galway said Mr Cowen was among scores of party members, including senior Government ministers, in the hotel bar until the early hours of the morning.
Renowned as a great mimic, he entertained colleagues with impressions of Irish golfers Philip Walton and Des Smyth as well legendary sports broadcaster Micheal O Muircheartaigh.
Several Fianna Fáil members took their turn in a traditional sing-song which started after midnight.
Mr Cowen sang the ballad 'Lakes of Ponchartrain', about an Irish immigrant who falls in love with a Louisiana Creole woman but is spurned because she is promised to a sailor.
Others present at The Blazers bar in the Ardilaun Hotel said the Taoiseach was drinking lager and left at about 3.30am.
His performance on the radio interview several hours later, at about 8.50am, sparked a furore with opposition politicians who alleged it raised concerns over his ability to lead the country.
Fine Gael transport spokesman Simon Coveney led the attack with a message posted on the social media website Twitter after the nine-minute broadcast. “God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning,” he wrote.
“He sounded halfway between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested.”
Michael Noonan, Fine Gael’s finance spokesman, even suggested the row could spell the end for the coalition government.
“There was a feeling this morning, and it went across political lines, and it wasn’t political point-scoring, there was a feeling that this can’t continue, the game is up,” he said.
He added: “He certainly didn’t sound like a man who was going to lead the country out of the problems it’s now in.”
The controversy, at a time when Mr Cowen’s ability to communicate with the public has come under intense scrutiny, prompted several senior Government ministers to defend him.
Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin said Mr Cowen had come under attack for simply being hoarse.
“I think, from a content perspective, I had no difficulty with the interview at all,” he said.
“Of course, the Taoiseach was very hoarse during the interview, that was self-evident and very clear. But it seems to me that that seems to be what the issue is about, that the Taoiseach was hoarse.”
Mr Martin, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan all flanked Mr Cowen during an afternoon press conference dominated by the controversy.
Dermot Ahern, Justice Minister, said it was well known Mr Cowen suffered from nasal congestion.
The Taoiseach dismissed suggestions he was worse for wear as petty personality politics and distasteful.
“It was obviously politically motivated and orchestrated,” he said.
“I think it’s pathetic and pitiful.”
Mr Cowen repeatedly apologised for his hoarse voice but said he didn’t regret going on the morning radio show and all the answers he gave fairly reflected government policies.
Asked if he had any concerns about his drinking, the Taoiseach said it was important to recognise politicians enjoy social occasions after work but that moderation was key.
Roisin Shortall, Labour Party TD, described the interview as one of the most inept and unconvincing by a Taoiseach in the history of the state.
“Such a performance by a Taoiseach at any time would be a matter of concern, but at a time when the country is facing such huge economic problems, it must set serious alarm bells ringing,” she said.
“When the country is crying out for leadership, looking out for some optimism for the future, we had an interview from a Taoiseach that was semi-coherent and offered no hope or no vision.”
Ms Shortall added: “The point of no return has now been reached.
“Only a General Election and the return of a new government with a fresh mandate can rescue the country from the morass into which Fianna Fáil has led it.”
Mr Coveney said he stood by his remarks and that he felt the Taoiseach did himself and the listeners a disservice.
“Clearly Fianna Fáil has decided to come out on the attack and attack me. People who know me know I’m not the kind of person who launches personal attacks,” the Cork TD said.
“I’m much more comfortable talking about policy but this morning was different because the Taoiseach’s interview was different.”
Mr Coveney, who said he did not wish to “get into the whole drinking issue”, said he respected Mr Cowen and that in other interviews he shows he is bright and articulate.
He also insisted it was not a planned attack either personally or through the Fine Gael backroom team or the communications office.
“I thought it was an awful interview. I was annoyed because, at a time many people are looking for inspiration and positive determination from politicians, and in particular the Taoiseach, we get a really poor interview,” he said.