DUBLIN — Prime Minister Brian Cowen is resisting calls for an early election in Ireland amid fears about the nation's debt troubles — and his own ability to steer the country through the crisis.
Cowen was accused by politicians and commentators on Irish radio Tuesday of being drunk or hung over after he gave a croaky interview to RTE, the state broadcast network. He often offered vague, semi-coherent answers to questions on Ireland's battle to save its banks and reverse its deficit.
Asked by a reporter for TV3 about speculation he was struggling from the aftereffects of late-night drinking, Cowen replied curtly, "That's ridiculous." He also criticized the question as being "uncalled for."
The prime minister flatly denied the accusation at a subsequent news conference. "I think it's a real new low in Irish politics," he said. "It's an appalling and unfounded assertion," he added, Cabinet members flanking him in a show of support. "I have a hoarseness in my throat for which I apologize."
Between drunk and hungover?
Michael Noonan, the finance spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael party, insisted he wasn't making a personal attack with his criticism. "I was listening to the interview. He certainly was a man who was coming at the interview at the end of a very late night," he said.
One opposition politician, Simon Coveney of Fine Gael, tweeted that Cowen sounded "halfway between drunk and hung over."
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Foreign Minister Micheal Martin defended his boss, saying Cowen was "very hoarse" during the interview on the "Morning Ireland," which was broadcast from Galway, the site for his party's two-day conference on party policy.
Martin added, "There is always a social dimension to occasions such as this week's Fianna Fáil gathering, but no more than that." Fianna Fail is the name of Cowen's party.
Renowned for his gruff public persona, Cowen traditionally lets his hair down at the annual conference with ballad songs and pints of beer into the small hours.
But headlines about a partying leader are the last thing the government needs as it seeks to squeeze more cutbacks out of a badly stretched electorate and convince investors that Ireland is not on the rocks.
"This is an exhausted man running an exhausted government. For me, this is just another example of why we could really do with another election as soon as possible," said David Farrell,Professor of politics at University College Dublin.
"He is a person who is clearly under a lot of stress and strain and this is revealed by this morning's very poor performance," Farrell said.
Cowen's party has a shaky parliamentary majority. His government faces re-election by 2012.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.