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Irish PM's party mulls second coup bid in a week

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen could face a second challenge to his leadership of the ruling Fianna Fail party in a week after a botched attempt to reshuffle his cabinet prompted colleagues to plot afresh.

Brian Cowen, Irish Prime Minister and leader of Fianna Fail, waves to photographers with his wife Mary after winning a vote of confidence from members of his own party in Dublin January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Cowen won a secret ballot on his leadership on Tuesday, seemingly securing his position until a parliamentary election on March 11 but his challenger, former foreign minister Micheal Martin, said the party should think again this weekend.

“I think people are very surprised and shocked by what has happened and it has caused a lot of concern within the Fianna Fail party,” Martin told national broadcaster RTE on Friday.

Cowen’s thwarted reshuffle nearly brought down his coalition government on Thursday and forced him to call an early election.

“Given what has happened yesterday, it’s time for people to maybe think about it over the next short while. People may have different perspectives and if they do, they should do the appropriate thing,” said Martin.

Cowen was already the most unpopular premier in recent Irish history due to his handling of the economic crisis which forced Dublin to seek an EU/IMF bailout last year. On Thursday he misjudged the reaction of the junior coalition party and Irish people to a reshuffle widely viewed as “jobs for the boys.”

Some Fianna Fail party members, embarrassed over the parliamentary chaos and stung by public anger, renewed calls for his resignation.

However, others said the time for change had passed. If Cowen were unseated as Fianna Fail leader, this could bring an immediate dissolution of parliament and a snap election. “It’s all too late,” Fianna Fail lawmaker Mary O’Rourke told RTE.

A defiant Cowen insisted he would lead his party into the election. Asked at a news conference in the Northern Irish city of Armagh if he thought he should resign, 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. “The authority of my leadership remains.”

Ireland’s opposition Labour party said on Friday it would proceed with a motion of no confidence in the government on Tuesday, hoping to seize on strained relations between Fianna Fail and junior coalition partners The Greens.

But The Greens, who threatened to pull out of the government on Thursday unless Cowen dropped his reshuffle plans and named an election date, said they were determined to stay in power to pass the final piece of legislation underpinning the 2011 austerity budget.

The coalition has comfortably won previous no confidence votes despite its rocky internal relations.

Ireland’s main opposition party Fine Gael, which is overwhelming favorite to lead the next coalition with Labour, said the government would be lucky to last till next week.

“I think this government could disintegrate over the weekend. Quite clearly the Fianna Fail party now is in a state of total meltdown and I expect there will be other events in days to come,” justice spokesman Alan Shatter told reporters.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Ian Graham in Belfast; editing by Carmel Crimmins/Elizabeth Fullerton