LINGERING Fianna Fáil hopes of keeping its iron grip in Laois-Offaly are in tatters with the likely decision of the Taoiseach to quit politics.
While Brian Cowen refused up to this morning (Wednesday) to commit to running in the General Election, sources close to the Clara man reluctantly admitted that he would stand down this week after more than quarter of a century in public life.
After a tumultuous month, in which he lost the leadership of his party, it is understood that Mr Cowen's decision not to stand is almost certain. A source said the Taoiseach is to make his final decision for family reasons.
The events of recent weeks are understood to have taken their toll on Mr Cowen, his wife Mary and two daughters. It is also understood that Mr Cowen is conscious of the historical significance of the fact that former Taoisigh never contest.
The decision is sure to leave a gaping hole in the party's strategy in Laois-Offaly where Fianna Fil are already expected to lose one seat. A senior constituency source admitted that the move "changes everything" for the party, with more than one of the three seats now on the line.
The seat of Minister of State John Moloney was already seen to be in jeopardy. Given his close ties to Mr Cowen, his chances are sure to have been greatly diminished.
Mr Cowen's organisation is now likely to focus on Offaly where the party faces a head to head battle with Fine Gael who, this week, are expected to add another candidate in Laois. FF will be under even more pressure in Laois given that FG is understood to have chosen John Moran who will be targeting Sean Fleming's seat.
The final FF team is set to be decided next Tuesday but a decision from Mr Cowen is due by the end of the week. The Taoiseach is understood to want to clear the way in Offaly for his successor - quite possibly his brother and Offaly County Council Cathaoirleach, Barry.
Thee three sitting TDs and John Foley are the only four names going before convention at the time of going to print.
FF members in both counties may take some faint hope in Cowen's decision to turn up and rally the troops in Portlaoise and Tullamore last Monday and Tuesday nights respectively. The Taoiseach refused to clear up doubts before addressing the Laois organisation on Monday night when speaking to the 'Express'.
"I will consult with my family and friends over the next few days which I have not had an opportunity to do yet, but I will obviously be doing so and be preparing for convention in good time. It is something I will be considering," he said.
While the Laois party faithful gave him a rousing reception upon his arrival at the Killeshin Hotel, they will want an answer soon. In advance of the meeting, many were concerned at the prospect of holding three seats, particularly if Mr Cowen does not run. Some are understood to have attempted to persuade him of the long term merits of staying on.
Mr Cowen agreed that the party was facing a battle in Laois/Offaly regardless of his own decision.
"We don't underestimate the challenge. It would be foolish not to suggest that there would be a loss of support for the party. We have seen that in opinion polls. But at the end of the day the real decision will be on election day," he said.
Mr Cowen talked up the prospects of the two outgoing Laois TDs, Sean Fleming and John Moloney describing them as two of the "best hard-working" TDs in his party.
"At this time of difficulty, the credibility of our candidates will stand them in good stead," he said.
Despite his refusal to commit to the fight locally he appeared in election mode.
"We are going to campaign and make sure our message gets out there. There has been a lot of misrepresentation of what FF has been achieving in Government. There are many who have had the luxury of opposition, who are saying there are easier soft options available. I think we have a positive message to put," he said.
See this week's Offaly Express for extensive reports and reaction to Brian Cowen's resignation as FF leader and also our general election countdown coverage begins.
Cowen stepping down as FF leader but staying as Taoiseach