The amendments to the dog-breeding bill proposed by environment minister John Gormley should placate deputies and ensure the government limps to the summer recess bloodied but unbowed

IT wasn't politics' finest week. Coalition TDs have, for almost two years, trooped through the lobbies and voted for a series of very painful (but necessary) measures, somehow maintaining government unity in the process. Then, calling to mind the old WC Fields line about never working with children or animals, the whole thing nearly comes apart at the seams over stag hunting and dog breeding.

The hostility towards the junior coalition partner from some Fianna Fáil TDs resembled the dark days of the Albert Reynolds-led coalitions with the PDs and then Labour, when 'if in doubt, leave them out' was the prevailing mood of FF deputies. Neither of those two coalitions lasted long and there was a feeling among some in Leinster House that last week might mark the beginning of the end for the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.

The level of emotion on display last week mightn't have been rational – a Tipperary TD losing the whip over a stag hunt in County Meath? – but, on a human level, it was understandable.

Tiredness after a torrid political year was certainly a factor but there was more to it than that. Two years of frustration at being rendered virtually impotent by a torrent of bad news came spilling out.

Fianna Fáil is heading for election meltdown and dozens of TDs are facing the loss of their seats, their livelihoods. It's no wonder they are lashing out. Like the Howard Beale character in the film Network, they are mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more.

The well-resourced Rural Ireland Says Enough! (Rise!) failed in its attempt to stop the ban on carted stag hunting, but its campaign clearly spooked already jumpy Fianna Fáil TDs and highlighted, for the first time, what seemed to be serious divisions between the two coalition partners.

Gormley's grasp of detail

The handling of the situation by Brian Cowen and John Gormley didn't help matters. Questions have to be asked as to how such a relatively innocuous piece of legislation was allowed get to the point of almost open revolt.

Privately, some Fianna Fáil TDs were critical of Gormley's grasp of the detail of the legislation. Whether that criticism was justified or not, there is little doubt that having the wildlife and dog-breeding bills in successive weeks played into the hands of Rise and its emotive claims about attacks on the rural way of life.

"Tuesday was a really demoralising day. After doing what we did in bringing in Nama and all the financial and budgetary stuff, to get ourselves in such a lather over what was a pretty small issue, it just made you wonder, what the hell are we at?" one senior government figure said.

But another Fianna Fáil source believed it went deeper than stag hunting and dog breeding.

"You have a clash of styles between the Green ideology and the Fianna Fáil way, where there is always a deal to be done. Fianna Fáil TDs wouldn't be used to ideologies being stood over," one Fianna Fáil source said this weekend.

However, others played down talk of a fissure between the two coalition partners.

"It's overstated. There was a lot of frustration last week but relations between the two parties are good. Most of the backbenchers get on well with the Green TDs. There is no tension there on a personal level," one prominent Fianna Fáil backbencher said.

What is worrying for Brian Cowen is that the discontent last week went far beyond the usual suspects who have been moaning about the government and his leadership for months now. The strong comments of Meath TD Johnny Brady in the Dáil – addressed not just to John Gormley but to the Taoiseach and the rest of the cabinet – were a surprise to many, even allowing for his obvious local interest in the issue.

"Johnny wouldn't be a rebel, quite the opposite. He would be a very good barometer of backbench opinion and would be very respected by rural deputies as a genuine, sincere individual. This goes much deeper than normal posturing," the Fianna Fáil source said.

Behind the scenes things are not good. At least 30 TDs are believed to be unhappy with Brian Cowen's leadership and they are said to include senior, experienced backbenchers who would once have been regarded as allies of the Taoiseach. Only the absence of a challenge from a senior cabinet figure – and the fear that a challenge could trigger a premature general election, and with it the risk of a wipeout for Fianna Fáil – is preventing a heave.

The role of the Lemass forum in the events of last week was also a topic of conversation among Fianna Fáil deputies. Rightly or wrongly, many of them privately pointed the finger at founding member John McGuinness, who has been a strong critic of Cowen. Some deputies claimed McGuinness was the "ringleader pulling the strings" last week.

While there are TDs in the Lemass forum who are not in the anti-Cowen camp, some in Fianna Fáil believe it has become a breeding ground for dissent and that the Taoiseach needs to clamp down on it or at least formally bring it into the party structures, perhaps appointing McGuinness as chairman.

"The Lemass forum should have been obliterated at the very start," was the verdict of one deputy.

However, others believe such a move could rebound on Cowen or drive the dissent underground.

The Taoiseach's concerns don't stop at disaffected backbenchers. There is suspicion that the Greens are "accumulating a selection box of issues important to their base" – the ban on stag hunting, regulating puppy farms and the new planning bill – before pulling out of government on a matter of principle.

The Greens have shown admirable nerve in standing over a range of unpopular decisions in government, but there is a belief within Fianna Fáil that "eventually the Greens will have enough from the shelf" and will seek an issue on which to pull out. Last weekend's opinion poll rating of 2% will have increased the determination of the Green Party to flex its muscles in government. If that irritates the Fianna Fáil backbenches, so be it.

It remains to be seen if Fianna Fáil and the Greens can agree a budget in December. The Greens have been willing to sign up for the tough medicine so far, but this budget – delivering €3 billion in savings from an already smaller base – will be a massive challenge. Some of the money is going to have to come from new taxes. Given the time needed to bring in a site valuation tax and metered water charges, the obvious solution would be a temporary flat-rate services charge.

Principled stand

The other likely way of getting more revenue is to widen the tax net, bringing in some of the 50% of workers who pay no tax at present. This level of exemption is without precedent in the OECD and will have to change. But will the Greens be able to live with a flat-rate services charge or expanding the tax net? And if Fianna Fáil were to push it, could these be the issues on which the Greens take a principled stand?

A more immediate concern for the government is the loss of another backbencher. Mattie McGrath won't be on too many Fianna Fáil deputies' Christmas cards lists. There has been barely concealed exasperation at his antics in recent months.

"The guy would fight with his fingernails," one colleague said. Another commented: "Mattie was being so completely unreasonable. He had gone to the wire so many times, it was nearly a relief that he finally went."

But that relief could be short-lived. McGrath voted against the government on two other occasions last week, suggesting that, unlike other Fianna Fáil TDs who have lost the whip, he cannot be relied on in difficult votes to come.

With several government TDs missing votes last week because of illness, the numbers have tightened up considerably and that raises yet more questions about the holding (or not) of the three by-elections.

There is some breathing space for the government because the delay in the legislation on the Dublin mayoral contest means that the election is unlikely to happen before next spring.

That's good news for the government because there is no way the mayoral election can be held if the by-elections don't also happen. But Gormley and the Greens could come under pressure to delay the mayoral election even beyond next spring.

"If the Greens are serious about going the distance then they might have to forget about the Dublin mayoral election," a Fianna Fáil deputy said.

The Greens will strongly resist such arguments but the numbers suggest that the TD is right. The government has had a majority of five or six in most votes over the past year but three inevitable by-election defeats would leave the coalition extremely vulnerable in the event of more defections or illnesses.

That shouldn't be a problem next week when the votes are counted on the dog-breeding bill. For most Fianna Fáil TDs, including Mattie McGrath and Christy O'Sullivan, this was a far more contentious piece of legislation than the stag-hunting ban. But it seems as if common sense has prevailed. The amendments proposed by Gormley should placate deputies – including independent TD Michael Lowry, who voted against the government last week – and ensure the government limps to the summer recess bloodied but unbowed.

"The summer break just can't come soon enough," one minister admitted this weekend.

Another mini-crisis

The long break will certainly take the heat out of things. Come September, the passions of last week may be long forgotten, as so often happens in politics. But if the past two years are anything to go by, it won't be long before the government is facing some fresh mini-crisis or other.

Talking to Fianna Fáil deputies, there is no real confidence that the government can now run its full term, even though it needs to if there is to be any chance of increasing its support. That has less to do with the horrendous decisions that lie ahead in the budget, or the fear of the Greens deciding enough is enough, than with numbers, which ultimately call the shots in politics.

"Our biggest problem at the moment is ill-health," one senior government figure admitted last week. "I would be a lot less confident of going the full term than I was."

It says everything about the demoralised state of the coalition that, right now, most of its TDs would settle for getting as far as next weekend. They should make it that far, but beyond that the future looks increasingly uncertain.