Bertie castigates the PDs at FF meeting

Bertie Ahern rounded on some of his backbenchers at Tuesday's Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting for distracting from the internal squabble within the Progressive Democrats with their proposal for an independent policy committee.

According to one of those present, the Taoiseach described as "ludicrous headbanging" the recent media attention on the so-called dissidents within Fianna Fáil while their government partners were tearing themselves apart.

"We should have been sitting back watching that party disintegrate. Instead we picked up a grenade and threw it at ourselves," is how one senior backbencher recorded Ahern's contribution.

"It was a common theme at the meeting, including at the top table, that our association with the PDs was damaging themselves but while they were having their own differences our lads were scoring an own goal."

Another participant said that the Taoiseach was fortright in his comments about the PDs.

"Bertie Ahern's point was that while they were on their knees last weekend we gave them a leg-up and I think this was generally agreed. It was incongruous how we proceeded to start beating our own breasts when we should have left them at it."

The rural TD agreed that the PDs, and Michael McDowell in particular, were the butt of much criticism but some Fianna Fáil members of cabinet were also accused of being less than helpful.

"The thrust of it was that some ministers were less than helpful and even brusque. In that sense there was a concession to those TDs who want some ministers to be held more to account."

Bertie Ahern welcomed calls for greater consultation between ministers and backbenchers and, after more than 30 of those present spoke, he proposed the formation of four policy groups which are due to meet with ministers in the coming weeks.

"The backbenchers wanted ministers to listen to their concerns about health -and other issues and to come to meetings, and that has now been put in place before it all culminates in a love-in in Westport at the end of the summer," said one backbencher.

The four new groups will discuss the economy, social issues, agriculture and rural life and "quality of life" issues with the relevant ministers over the coming weeks as a concession to the demand by the 16 TDs who signed a letter calling for a new backbencher controlled policy committee.

"There was a nervousness about him [Ahern] and he blustered on and on. He clearly didn't like what was happening within the backbenches but he had to succumb to what they were looking for despite the spin put out after the meeting," said another TD.

"Some of those who signed the letter said that they had never wanted it to go public, that they never intended it to cause embarassment. In fact, most of those who signed the letter distanced themselves from it."

"There was discussion about the relations with the PDs and the general election. There is continuing bewilderment that the country is going so well and so much progress is being made on a whole range of issues yet the government does not get the benefit [in the polls]," the Dublin TD said.

"There was feeling that one senior PD minister was not doing our party any favours. There was certainly a view that every time that particular minister opens his mouth it turns Fianna Fáil voters off. But unless Mary Harney deals with it internally in the PDs, there is not much we can do. If two people can't work together, it's not the boss that leaves."

"But the mood of the meeting was not downcast. Actually there was a belief in the room that we can win the election. We deserve to win it as the government is performing on the economy, the North, Europe, the big issues. It is the silly little things like voting machines and decentralisation that are knocking us," he said. Another source said that Ahern made a blistering verbal attack on Cork TD Noel O'Flynn at the end of the meeting blaming him indirectly for media leaks. There was also strong criticism of Deputy John McGuinness who met the Taoiseach in his Kilkenny constituency last week without informing his fellow letter writers.