TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is facing a disciplinary crisis in Fianna Fáil with an "unprecedented" 10 of its TDs and senators set to be outside the parliamentary party by Friday.
After a turbulent week, there is growing frustration among Fianna Fáil TDs that Cowen isn't taking a tougher line, both with those who are threatening to vote against the government and dissidents creating unrest against his leadership.
Following the loss of Tipperary South TD Mattie McGrath from the parliamentary party, there are real worries that the government could soon be in a position where it does not have the numbers to win key Dáil votes, triggering an early general election.
These concerns are compounded by the fact that a number of Fianna Fáil TDs are currently unavailable due to illness – four missed last week's votes for this reason.
Finance minister Brian Lenihan spent three days in hospital last week but he is at home in Castleknock, Dublin this weekend.
"Discipline is breaking down," one senior TD said yesterday. "And Cowen isn't doing anything about it. In Haughey's time that wouldn't have happened. He should face up to it."
Another minister admitted there had been an "à la carte approach to membership of the parliamentary party" in recent times.
The breakdown in discipline was starkly demonstrated with near open revolt over the animal welfare bills. There are already four TDs – Jim McDaid, Eamon Scanlon, Jimmy Devins and Mattie McGrath – and three senators (Ivor Callely, Larry Butler and Denis O'Donovan) who have lost the whip. This is expected to increase to 10 – something which has never happened before – with three senators set to oppose the civil partnership bill this week.
Despite the controversy, the government is expected to comfortably win this week's vote on the dog breeding bill. Amendments announced by environment minister John Gormley should ensure there are no more defections and Labour is now expected to also back the legislation.
However, there are worries about future votes, particularly December's budget, and TDs admit they are less confident about the government lasting until 2012.
With McGrath's vote no longer assured, the government – including independent TDs – currently has a cushion of just four in the Dáil.
This includes Jim McDaid, Eamon Scanlon and Jimmy Devins who lost the whip last year. However, there were reports that McDaid last week threatened to vote against the government, while Meath deputy Mary Wallace did not vote on the order of business last Tuesday, though she later voted with the government on the stag-hunting issue.
The government's ever-tightening majority has focused attention on the Green Party's plans for a new Dublin mayor.
A number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers privately believe that if the Greens "are serious about going the distance", such plans will have to be put on hold. "The by-elections will have to be held on the same day as the Dublin mayoral elections and Fianna Fáil will lose all three. If the Greens want this government to run as long as possible then common sense must prevail," one TD said. A number of TDs also want Cowen to rein in the Lemass forum, the backbencher group established by John McGuinness.
Sources close to the party indicated this weekend that while Cowen understood the unique difficulties for TDs on the animal welfare bills, he "won't be putting up with any messing" in the future.