Mark Antony Moment That Put an End to a Leadership Challenge. Analysis

Article excerpt

Byline: by Senan Molony Political Editor

BRIAN LENIHAN'S unannounced Fianna Fail leadership bid was in tatters last night. The Finance Minister was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Brian Cowen at party level, while his 'meddlesome' aunt withdrew her attempt to have the party's TDs come back early after Christmas to address the leadership issue.

The Taoiseach is now set to lead Fianna Fail into a General Election that is likely to massacre his party.

Sources say Mr Lenihan is virtually certain to be overlooked after the election as the party attempts to rebuild for the longer term under Micheal Martin.

The bitterest pill for the Finance Minister came with a Mark Antony moment at a parliamentary party meeting yesterday.

Mr Cowen singled out Mr Lenihan for special commendation on the Budget that has helped to doom the Dublin West Deputy's chances of securing the top job.

He also paid tribute to Department of Finance officials who had 'worked tirelessly' on the Budget, some of whom he suspects of working tirelessly behind the scenes to advance the Lenihan candidature.

Government chief whip John Curran made a point of mentioning Mr Cowen's praise for Mr Lenihan at the meeting. The Finance Minister's supporters had said a motion of no confidence would be tabled. None appeared.

Mr Curran also made clear that party rules required a quarter of the parliamentary party to support a special recall meeting during a Dail recess. That means 25 signatures would be needed, instead of the 18 necessary to put down a demand for a leadership vote.

The situation means Mr Cowen will return to the Dail on Wednesday, January 12 and stay as Taoiseach until the election is called.

MR Lenihan's backers were putting a brave face on their rout yesterday. They claimed Mr Cowen was still only one bad opinion poll away from a new day of reckoning.

Yet a press release from Fianna Fail baldly declared: 'The meeting endorsed the leadership of Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD of the Fianna Fail party into the forthcoming election.'

Up to 20 TDs addressed the gathering, the Taoiseach having given an uncompromising opening address, and none dared criticise Mr Cowen, who has been an aggressive media performer this week. He said Fianna Fail had clearly set out its stall as to where it saw Ireland going in coming years -- unlike other parties, which were not offering coherent positions.

He urged TDs to use local media to highlight the differences in the alternative Government.

'He clearly indicated his intention, going forward in the coming months, to lead the party into the general election, fighting on the issues we have delivered,' Mr Curran said. That position was endorsed by the party. I suppose 15 to 20 speakers. No dissenters.' Mr Cur ran said the leadership issue was now closed: 'Absolutely, yes.' The Taoiseach was very much a team player, he said, and some of the things that had appeared in the media were not helpful.

Meanwhile, Mary O'Rourke, the finance minister's aunt, ran up the white flag on radio yesterday.

She said she accepted Mr Cowen would lead Fianna Fail into the next election.

She said of the Taoiseach: 'I heard him on Budget night and he said quite emphatically and quite clearly that he would [lead the party into the General Election], and I think it's good that that miasma, if you like, has been blown away and that there has been a clear emphatic statement.'

Mrs O'Rourke indicated she was withdrawing her call for a special meeting in early January to 'chart a way forward' for the party. …