Taoiseach Brian Cowen: options

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is considering the option of holding off on appointing a direct replacement for Willie O'Dea in the short term and opting for a wider cabinet reshuffle after Easter.

The Taoiseach is believed to be contemplating three options this weekend to fill the gap caused by O'Dea's resignation.

* A straight replacement for O'Dea announced this Tuesday with fellow mid-west minister Tony Killeen the likely choice. Niall Blaney or Wexford's Sean Connick would come into the junior ranks.

* Letting matters lie for a week or two before announcing a replacement and then opting for a reshuffle later in the year.

* Holding off on any appointment until the Easter break and announcing a wider cabinet reshuffle on the resumption of the Dáil.

While the Taoiseach has yet to make any decision on what is the best way to proceed, the latter option is one of those being "kicked around" and would offer significant advantages. Cowen is keen to have a cabinet reshuffle but would be reluctant to be seen to do so on the back of the controversy surrounding O'Dea.

Leaving it until after Easter would overcome such concerns and would be seen by many in the party as preferable to an autumn reshuffle, which they fear would be seen as 'too little, too late'.

A wider re-shuffle at Easter would also offer the option of appointing someone to assist finance minister Brian Lenihan in dealing with his extensive workload as he continues to receive treatment.

Ironically, O'Dea would have been the most likely candidate to take over in a new Department of Economic Planning, which has been mooted in government circles for some time. Lenihan gave a characteristically robust speech to the Dáil during last week's motion of confidence in O'Dea.

One of those seen as a potential loser in any cabinet reshuffle is tourism minister Martin Cullen, who is currently struggling with a chronic back problem that has left him in agony and curtailed his ability to fulfil all his ministerial duties, although his ailment is said to have improved in recent weeks.

Cullen last week caused some surprise in government circles when he told the Dáil that he was overruled in budget discussions over the controversial airport travel tax.

The comments would appear to run contrary to the long established precedent of collective cabinet decision-making, but went virtually unnoticed amidst all the furore over O'Dea.

Senior government sources have stressed that Cowen has "not fully put his mind" to the issue of O'Dea's replacement, "particularly given who it was that resigned".

Cowen and O'Dea were very friendly and the Taoiseach is known to have been "very upset on a personal basis" that the Limerick East poll-topper had to resign.

The Sunday Tribune has established that Green Party leader John Gormley, during a tense meeting with the Taoiseach on Wednesday afternoon, made it clear the Greens could not live with O'Dea staying on in cabinet.

There are conflicting reports about whether Gormley explicitly said the Greens would walk, but there was no doubt on either side that this was the junior coalition party's position. This would have been communicated to O'Dea and ended any dwindling prospect of him staying on in his position.

Earlier that day, the Green parliamentary party considered the option of suggesting that O'Dea should temporarily resign pending an investigation of the facts of the case.

A Green figure told the Sunday Tribune: "We spent a while looking at him resigning temporarily, like Peter Robinson did in the North, and getting the Standards in Public Office [Sipo] commission to look into him. "Unfortunately, Sipo wouldn't have the necessary powers to do an investigation so it was left to us to make a judgement call purely on the evidence before us."

The Greens would strongly favour an early and extensive cabinet reshuffle but acknowledge that this is the prerogative of the Taoiseach and are particularly unlikely to force matters in the wake of last week's events.