Page last updated at 14:58 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 15:58 UK

Cowen - a new style of taoiseach

By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC News

After years in office, the "Teflon Taoiseach" Bertie Ahern is being replaced by the "Tungsten Taoiseach", Brian Cowen.

Brian Cowen is being installed as the new taoiseach
Brian Cowen is being installed as the new taoiseach

Brian Cowen is probably Ireland's most formidable politician, after the man he succeeded.

While Mr Ahern was the "Teflon Taoiseach" to whom nothing stuck apart from allegations about his private finances in the end which forced him to step down, the "Tungsten Taoiseach" might be a moniker appropriate to his successor.

Mr Cowen is a tough and bruising operator, adored by allies and feared by political opponents.

But his forthright and often aggressive debating style on the airwaves or in the Dáil chamber masks a character of contrasts.

Behind closed doors, Mr Cowen has a reputation as a man of engaging company, who can captivate a room with a combination of wit, humour and song when required with ease.

He is accepted by the political and media establishment in Ireland to be one of the Dáil's brightest brains.

Allied to this, he is Fianna Fáil to his fingernails. Three generations of his family have been involved in the party in Offaly since its foundation in 1926.

Loyalty to the party is something unshakeable in Mr Cowen, and indeed defines his ultimate political philosophy.

His calmness while the party was rocked through the recent crisis of the allegations of corruption facing Bertie Ahern helped make him a certainty for the top job.

His elevation to leader of Fianna Fáil was unopposed, not just due to the respect he is held in by the party, but also because anyone opposing him risked suffering such catastrophic defeat it could irreparably damage their career.

But for one who has taken the top prize in Irish politics, hunger and ambition for high office are not qualities readily associated with the 47-year-old from Clara, County Offaly.

Mr Cowen entered politics at just 24 after the sudden death of his TD father, Ber, in 1984.

Winning the by-election, he became the youngest TD in the Dáil, and was also co-opted as a county councillor until 1992.

By then he had accrued plenty of skills to equip him for his future career.

On his way to the funeral of Éamon de Valera in 1974, the precocious teenager entertained a bus of local party faithful with a rendition of his favourite song, "The Town I Loved So Well".

He remains an accomplished singer, performing "Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore" at last year's Fleadh Cheoil in Tullamore for Irish state broadcaster RTÉ.

From a comfortable middle-class rural background, the young Mr Cowen was to win the 1976 All-Ireland schools debating championship while a boarder at the elite Roscrea school.

These debating skills and his nationalist and Fianna Fáil-style constitutional and non-violent republican politics were noticed among his peers at University College Dublin (UCD), when he delivered a rousing speech at a debate defending the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion.

Bertie Ahern has stepped down from the post
Bertie Ahern has stepped down from the post

He graduated with a law degree.

Displaying his ultra-loyalty to his party, Mr Cowen vehemently opposed the late Taoiseach Charlie Haughey's decision to go into coalition with the Progressive Democrats in 1989, a party formed by Fianna Fáil dissidents.

It was a stance he repeated later before accepting them as partners under Bertie Ahern.

Mr Cowen backed Albert Reynolds in his unsuccessful tilt for taoiseach in 1991 before Charlie Haughey was finally ousted in 1992, and was appointed to ministerial office when Reynolds took the helm.

Following this stint as Labour minister, and then minister for transport and health, he ascended to one of the top three positions in government in 2000, when, as minister for foreign affairs he became a key player in the peace process negotiations at the time.

He endured insult at the hands of DUP leader Ian Paisley who made widely-condemned remarks at his party's annual conference in 2003 – to laughter from delegates - about Brian Cowen's appearance.

Cowen responded forthrightly: "Political contests are not beauty contests. It is great to be successful in that respect."

Other politicians in Northern Ireland saw him as a tough negotiator but gregarious outside when the business was done.

Three generations of the Cowen family have been involved in Fianna Fail
Three generations of the Cowen family have been involved in Fianna Fail

After Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said that consultation was needed with the IRA's so-called army council on a matter under negotiation during talks, Mr Cowen is reputed to have told him to go to outside and look in the mirror.

In Mr Ahern's cabinet reshuffle in 2004, he was appointed finance minister, a position he held until taking over as taoiseach, and he introduced a windfall budget in 2006 before a general election six months later.

But the days of such budgets are gone for now with the Republic's economy dramatically faltering after the years of boom.

Mr Cowen's stewardship of the country's finances, means that he, like his counterpart Gordon Brown in Downing Street, will have difficulty claiming immunity from the cause of economic decline, even if that is linked to the global financial turmoil and factors beyond their control.

Critics claim that Mr Cowen has left few marks in any of the offices he has held.

Some even say that Mr Cowen's love of the "craic", the pub, and being among his kith and kin has not been matched by his ambition, and that his extraordinary natural intelligence and ability has helped him coast through ministerial positions with considerably less effort and application than his peers.

He has little time for the media, but is popular with journalists who know him.

Unlike Mr Ahern before him, who regularly used the media to make major announcements rather than parliament, MrCowen is likely to see the Dáil as his primary conduit of communication.

But developing an improved rapport with the media may be something his advisers will be focussing on early.

Unlike Mr Ahern or those linked to the Haughey era, Mr Cowen is untainted by any of the allegations seeping from the Mahon Tribunal investigating planning corruption.

In the Dáil chamber, Mr Cowen's forceful debating skills – in both Irish and English - are likely to be directed at others such as Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny. Few imagine Kenny will match Mr Cowen at his most withering.

For some however, Mr Cowen's bruising strengths could be liabilities too unless they are toned down.

While tough talking and agresssive debating may suit a number two, being the front man may demand different skills.

His gruff and tough exterior – very different to his private side - is not a vote-winner among women, unlike Mr Ahern who was popular with female voters.

But within his party, he commands unbending loyalty. Immediately following his elevation, Fianna Fáil's popularity has risen in opinion polls.

As to whether Mr Cowen becomes as big a political Titan as his predecessor Mr Ahern, he certainly is being handed a much more difficult start.

While Mr Ahern had the Northern Ireland peace process as his biggest challenge, Ireland's economy in 1997 was in good shape when he took over.

Mr Cowen takes the reigns of power at a much more difficult time for Ireland.

The economy has stalled, and the Celtic Tiger is but a memory. Unemployment is rising, and the housing and construction sector which have been key drivers of the economy and employment have slumped.

But before he tackles the economy, his first major political challenge will be to get the Irish electorate to vote in favour of the Lisbon Treaty in June.

Ireland is the only country holding a referendum, because the fundamental changes in power granted to Brussels under the treaty charting the future shape of the European Union means the Irish Constitution must be changed by referendum to accept them.

But if the Treaty fails in Ireland, it falls across Europe, something which would be intensely embarrassing to Mr Cowen only weeks into office.

Already, farmers are threatening revolt over European Union negotiations with the World Trade Organisation which they fear will flood Europe with cheap food and destroy their livelihoods.

Others say Ireland's neutrality will be eroded, while trade unionists say they will also oppose the treaty because of fears over workers' rights. All of these claims are rejected by the government urging a "yes" vote.

Mr Cowen's vast political experience and ability, now coupled with power, will be put to a stern and immediate test to win over voters to back the Treaty.

Equally, winning the vote will put him in a strong footing to capitalise on his popularity in opinion polls, in a country facing different and difficult economic challenges after the Ahern era.

Day of symbolism at Boyne site
06 May 08 |  Northern Ireland
Ahern steps down as Irish leader
06 May 08 |  Northern Ireland
Last hurrah on political battlefield
06 May 08 |  Northern Ireland

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