Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

Changes at Republic's top

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

It was a year that began with the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, under siege because of questions about his personal finances and ended with his successor, Brian Cowen, equally under siege over his ability to handle the domestic recession and international credit crunch.

The Ahern era ended on a warm, sunny Tuesday, 6 May.

Bertie Ahern
It was the year that Bertie Ahern left office

It was his last full day in office and he spent the morning and early afternoon with Northern Ireland's then First Minister Ian Paisley on the green, grassy slopes of the Boyne at the new museum that commemorates the 1690 Battle.

It was a fitting and appropriate end for a man who says he spent 70% of his time as Taoiseach dealing successfully with Northern Ireland matters and the evolving peace process.

But the questions about his personal finances, after his marriage break-up and up to the mid-1990s, wouldn't go away.

Despite his denials that he had done nothing wrong, he felt forced to resign for the sake of the government.

The Mahon Tribunal, which has been investigating Mr Ahern's financial affairs as part of its inquiry into alleged planning corruption, is expected to report sometime in 2009.

Brian Cowen was, as expected, elected unopposed as Fianna Fail's new leader.

Like Peter Robinson and Gordon Brown he had been a number two for some time and, like them, it was always believed he would eventually get the top job.

Equally, it could be said, like them, he has struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor.

It was Mr Cowen's misfortune to take over just as the Republic was officially going into recession, property prices were falling and the international credit crunch was beginning to bite.

The new taoiseach, the son of a Fianna Fail TD, made Mary Coughlan, the daughter and niece of Fianna Fail TDs, his tanaiste or deputy prime minister.

He also appointed as his Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, the grandson, son, nephew and brother of Fianna Fail TDs and ministers.

Power in the Irish cabinet is now largely in the hands of this triumvirate of Fianna Fail aristocrats.

Brian Cowen
Brian Cowen has had worries with the economy

But the new regime had no political honeymoon.

Within weeks of taking over, voters, in a referendum, rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which aimed to streamline decision-making in an enlarged European Union.

That defeat damaged the authority and credibility of the government at home and abroad.

It now seems almost certain there will be another referendum on Lisbon in 2009 with the Republic's government seeking declarations that there was nothing in the treaty to undermine Irish neutrality, low corporation taxes, and abortion laws.

The government also wants every EU state to be allowed to continue to have a commissioner.

While the Cowen government won some praise at home for its tax-payers insurance scheme to protect Irish banks' deposits and loans in the face of the international financial crisis it then lost a lot of that goodwill because of its controversial budget in October.

Thousands of pensioners took to the streets to protest at the perceived threat to their medical cards.

The government backed down but lost the support of some of its TDs.

Anti-treaty MEPs voiced solidarity with the Irish No vote
Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty

Critics say that while the Fianna Fail-Green coalition government increased taxes, cut back on public spending and raised borrowing it failed to deal with the elephant in the room, public sector pay and the size of the public service.

The public has not been impressed.

Three-quarters of those questioned say they are dissatisfied with the government and for the first time since polls began the main opposition party, Fine Gael, has overtaken Fianna Fail.

Brian Cowen's personal rating has also plummeted with newspaper colour reporters having a field day writing about his gruff manner and use of American managerial-speak and jargon in interviews.

But it may not be all doom and gloom.

Yes, the government might do badly in next year's local and European elections but a general election could still be more than three years away.

And that's time enough to turn things around provided the public sees the benefits of tough decisions that have been taken.

But in the meantime ordinary people will suffer financially in 2009 as the economic downturn takes its toll.



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