Page last updated at 13:31 GMT, Saturday, 5 April 2008 14:31 UK

Cowen to succeed Ahern as leader

By Shane Harrison
BBC Northern Ireland Dublin correspondent

Brian Cowen
Brian Cowen is to be the new Fianna Fáil leader.

Brian Cowen has been confirmed as the new Fianna Fáil leader, succeeding Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach on 6 May.

He was the only candidate for the leadership, but will not officially become leader until a parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday morning.

Mr Ahern announced last Wednesday he was stepping down, amid on-going inquiries about his finances at a tribunal into planning corruption.

Mr Cowen has been Mr Ahern's expected successor for a long time.

Blue-blooded

Fianna Fáil, as a republican party, doesn't believe in bending the knee to aristocrats but in purely party terms they don't come much more blue-blooded than Brian Cowen.

Mr Cowen was 24 when he was elected to the Dáil in 1984 in a by-election in the Laois-Offaly constituency. It was caused by the death of his father, Ber, at the age of 52.

A solicitor and a GAA enthusiast, Mr Cowen has served in six cabinet posts including the important portfolios as minister for finance and minister for foreign affairs.

Rather like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, Brian Cowen had been Bertie Ahern's expected successor for some time. But that is where all similarities end.

The Fianna Fáil leader designate, who is loved by the grassroots, puts a premium on party loyalty and did nothing to undermine Bertie Ahern or hasten his exit.

'Dour image'

Mr Cowen has a rather dour and grumpy public image.

But even his opponents agree he is very intelligent while his supporters acknowledge he can be a rough diamond.

Married with two daughters, Mr Cowen has a reputation for being a great wit and a wicked mimic in the company of fellow TDs in the Dáil bar late at night but the public rarely gets to see his funny side.

While minister for health, he is reputed to have called the notoriously difficult to manage department "Angola" because of all the political landmines lying around waiting to explode.

When Albert Reynolds succeeded Charles Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach in 1992, he promoted Brian Cowen from the backbenches to the full cabinet.

Both Mr Cowen and Mr Reynolds were seen as being on Fianna Fail's "country and western wing" that opposed Mr Haughey.

When Albert Reynolds was having trouble with his then coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, Brian Cowen, the political bruiser, once told a party Ard Fhéis to rapturous applause: "What about the PDs? When in doubt, leave them out."

When Mr Reynolds, his mentor, was forced to resign as Taoiseach, Brian Cowen took it badly; some TDs say he sulked for over a year before bouncing back.

His critics say that, despite his undoubted intelligence, he has rarely left a mark in any of the ministeries he has held; that he has been too cautious and maybe even overly dependent on civil service advice.

They contrast his period as finance minister with that of his predecessor Charlie McCreevy.

But his supporters say it was easy for Mr McCreevy to be innovative when he presided over the boom years of the Celtic Tiger economy.

Mr Cowen's period dealing with Northern Ireland is probably best remembered for unflattering remarks Ian Paisley made about his lips, something that greatly annoyed callers to radio phone-in shows in Dublin.

Dublin voters

The Tanaiste, or deputy prime minister, will take over as Taoiseach on Tuesday, 6 May, knowing that he does not sell to women and Dublin voters the way Bertie Ahern did.

After appointing a new cabinet one of the first tasks he and his backroom team will have is to make the private Brian Cowen, that is so popular with Fianna Fáils TDs, better known to the public at large.

As for British-Irish relations, the new Fianna Fáil leader and Gordon Brown have known each other for years from attending EU meetings of finance ministers.

It will be a case of both men consolidating the successes of Northern Ireland with the new first minister, expected to be another finance minister, Peter Robinson, and then steady as she goes.

Politics like nature abhors a vacuum; the king is dead, long live the new king.

The Cowen era is about to begin.


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