Cowen vows to continue as Fianna Fáil leader

Embattled Taoiseach Brian Cowen defied his critics today and said he will lead his party into the March General Election and beyond.

Embattled Taoiseach Brian Cowen defied his critics today and said he will lead his party into the March General Election and beyond.

Despite growing signs of discontent in his Fianna Fáil party, and continuing disputes with his Green party coalition partners, he said he believed he had survived the controversy.

He remained under pressure after a botched Cabinet reshuffle left him unable to make the fresh appointments he had planned and pushed his Government to the brink of collapse.

But after meeting ministers from the North for a pre-planned round-table gathering in Armagh, he said minds should now focus on the General Election on March 11.

"There was controversy yesterday, yesterday is past," he said.

Asked if he should now resign Mr Cowen said: "Of course not. 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 his Green Party coalition partners 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.

"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."

He added: "So that issue is over."

He said the Irish Government was continuing to do its work.

The Taoiseach added his Fianna Fáil party would face into the General Election "with the same determination as characterised previous campaigns when we changed how we were being viewed".

He said: "We have served loyally. We have served in our opinion with determination and we have served the interests of the people in pursuance of the common good at all times."

But Micheál Martin, the party colleague who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Cowen's leadership, has now urged Fianna Fáil representatives to rethink the situation.

"We had a meeting last Tuesday, my view is that it is very clear that people coming out of yesterday, may have different perspectives," said Mr Martin.

"If they do, I think they should do the appropriate thing. I think others should think about it seriously, not just in terms of the party but in terms of the country."

But the coalition Government was on a knife edge as senior Fianna Fáil and Green representatives clashed over Mr Cowen's mishandled reshuffle.

Trevor Sargent, a former Green junior minister, claimed the Taoiseach was told that a plan to parachute in six new ministers after late-night resignations would "go down like a lead balloon".

The Dublin North TD claimed communications minister Eamon Ryan, who joined the Taoiseach in Armagh today with five other Irish Cabinet members and 13 Northern ministers for a north-south ministerial council meeting, warned Mr Cowen a reshuffle so close to an election would be seen as a political stroke.

"It was very, very strongly stated that this was not a good idea, (that) it was a mistake. And later on, if it did go to a vote, we said we could not support it," Mr Sargent said.

"You can't get much clearer than that."

Government Chief Whip John Curran argued that the Taoiseach had not been told that the Greens would not support new appointments if it came to a vote.

"Yes the Green Party did indicate that there were issues of perception that they were uncomfortable with," Mr Curran said.

"But at no time did they say they would not support it. They gave no indication they would not vote for it."

The Coalition was near collapse yesterday after four resignations late on Wednesday and a fifth on Thursday morning.

After an hour of disarray and chaos in the Dáil, business had to be suspended for two hours until Mr Cowen was compelled to make a statement to restore order.

The Cabinet positions were left empty after Mary Harney quit health, Dermot Ahern justice, Tony Killeen defence and Noel Dempsey transport. Batt O'Keeffe then quit enterprise.

Mr Cowen had already taken charge of foreign affairs after rebel TD Micheál Martin failed in his leadership bid.

Green leader John Gormley claimed yesterday he learnt of the resignations from his wife and on the news.

The portfolios were reassigned with Tánaiste (deputy PM) Mary Coughlan, already in charge of education, given health, agriculture minister Brendan Smith given justice, social protection minister Eamon O Cuiv given the defence brief, and Pat Carey, minister for Gaeltacht, community and rural affairs handed transport.

Tourism minister Mary Hanafin, who claimed she warned the Taoiseach not to try a reshuffle so close to an election, was given enterprise.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, said it is to proceed with a motion of no confidence targeting the wounded Government next week in the Dáil.

This came as Conor Lenihan, Junior Fianna Fail Minister, compared the last few days of unprecedented political turmoil to a car crash.

He claimed the Taoiseach was aware last Saturday - as he consulted with Fianna Fáil TDs over whether to remain party leader - that the Greens did not want new Cabinet ministers parachuted into empty portfolios.

Mr Lenihan said: "I think everybody was shell-shocked, not just me.

"All of my colleagues were wandering around the House in a state of shock.

"It's no exaggeration to say that it was akin to, and the atmosphere was akin to, somebody who had been through a car crash - the trauma that people experience after an incident of that kind."

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