Cowen resigns party leadership after series of political blunders

  • Cowen resigns, but intends to run in the general election
  • Election date now in Greens’ hands
  • Lenihan and Martin frontrunners in leadership contest
  • Full audio of conference below

An extraordinary week in Irish politics has ended with the announcement today by Taoiseach Brian Cowen that he has stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail. Jovial and unsentimental, Cowen gave the announcement during a hastily-arranged press conference in the Merrion Hotel, opposite government buildings shortly after 2pm. By Malachy Browne

(Pictured: Brian Cowen stands for photographers at the end of today's press conference where he announced his resignation as leader of Fianna Fail. Tainiste Mary Coughlan and party whip John Curran stand in the background)

Mr Cowen said that recent controversies and speculation about his leadership were “deflecting attention” from the business of government. He said “the focus should be on policies”. Amid several references to Fianna Fail, Mr Cowen said “the membership are concerned at the party’s prospects [going into the upcoming general election]”. He said that for this reason he decided to step down as party leader, while remaining as Taoiseach. “I decided on my own counsel,” he said.

Full audio of the conference here:  {mp3 width="400"}Brian Cowen - resignation{/mp3}

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Architect of self-destruction

This incredible turn of events comes just days after a vote of confidence in Brian Cowen’s leadership was passed by the parliamentary party. Mr Cowen tabled the vote of confidence in his leadership after two days of consultation with party members on Friday 14 January and Saturday 15 January. The consultation followed controversy surrounding a social occasion between Brian Cowen, senior bankers at Anglo Irish Bank and Central Bank board member Alan Gray in July 2008 when Brian Cowen was Taoiseach. Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan issued a blanket guarantee of deposits and bonds in all Irish-owned banks, including Anglo Irish Bank, months later on 29 September 2008.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin and other prominent TDs - including Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin and former Minister of Defence Willie O’Dea - opposed the vote of confidence. Micheal Martin resigned as Minister immediately after the vote was carried. In the following 24 hours, four Ministers - Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Tony Killeen and Mary Harney - announced that they would not contest the next election. Later, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Batt O’Keefe would announce his decision not to stand for re-election.

These resignations prompted a fatal decision by Brian Cowen on Wednesday to orchestrate an ill-fated attempt to reshuffle Ministers and “refresh” the Cabinet ahead of the general election. Consternation ensued. Outgoing Ministers were instructed to draft letters of resignation; some were notified by text and media sources as to their position. Barry Andrews and Seán Ó Fearghail were telephoned by Brian Cowen after midnight to inform them of their new ministries (Barry Andrews says he declined the offer). The Irish Times reported one Fianna Fail TD as saying: “It was a complete rush to the head by Cowen. He was offering ministries to guys who didn’t even want them.” Even Martin Mansergh, a fervent supporter of Brian Cowen, said today that he was dismayed on Thursday at the replacement of Batt O’Keefe as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation at a time when job creation is paramount.

Thursday morning, John Gormley and Green Party representatives rejected the reshuffle over three meetings with Brian Cowen and government representatives. The Greens issued an ultimatum to Brian Cowen and forced him to set an election date. Cowen was left with no choice but to back down. However, the letters of resignation had already been submitted to the President, and the vacant Ministries had to be reassigned to existing ministers.

It was a costly blunder. The debacle exposed a party in disarray and a panicked Taoiseach whose judgement lacked foresight and due consideration of the consequences. Indeed, the reshuffle ran counter to a decision Brian Cowen took only the previously Sunday with respect to Micheal Martin. When Mr Martin offered his resignation as Minister to Brian Cowen before he publicly announced that he would vote against the Taoiseach on Tuesday’s vote of confidence. Brian Cowen refused to accept his resignation on the basis that it would be destabilising for the government.

Election in Greens’ hands

In the final analysis, Brian Cowen proved well able to destabilise the government alone. He will remain on as Taoiseach and said today that he intends to stand for re-election in the upcoming election.

Although the election has been called for 11 March, the Green Party could yet hasten it to within a month. The party will meet Sunday morning to decide their position in light of Mr Cowen's resignation today. In theory, the Greens could hasten the dissolution of the government (and bring forward the election) when a vote of no confidence is tabled in the coming week. Although certain Fianna Fail backbenchers have been baying for Brian Cowen’s resignation, they will likely support the Taoiseach in the upcoming vote as Fianna Fail is ill-prepared for an election so soon.

The Green Party may well have a preference for 11 March too. After all, it was they who issued the ultimatum for an election to be called to Brian Cowen on Thursday – the date would surely have been discussed. The Green Party have scored political points at Fianna Fail’s expense this week, but Labour and Fine Gael could target John Gormely and Co. should they stay in government this week.

Leadership contest

As today’s press conference ended, Tainiste Mary Coughlan was boldly asked by reporters if she intended to stand for election as party leader. Most would agree this is an unlikely scenario – Mary Coughlan will do well to win re-election in Donegal South West with an approval rating of 10% in the most recent poll (when Pearse Doherty won the by-election in late 2010).

The leadership vote will be held this coming Wednesday. As it stands, Micheal Martin is the front-runner having capitalised on his vocal yet measured opposition of Brian Cowen’s leadership in the last week. Shortly after today's conference broke, Martin told Newstalk radio that he intends to stand for party leader. 

Brian Lenihan will also contest the party leadership, according to RTE. He supported Brian Cowen in Tuesday’s vote, but is reported to have been central to “breakaway” talks when the leadership crisis re-emerged on Thursday. Lenihan's brother Conor has repeatedly called for Brian Cowen's resignation in the past nine days.

Speaking on RTE radio, Éamon Ó Cuív refused to confirm or deny that he will stand for election as leader; he said that he will consult with party colleagues on the matter. It is also thought that Mary Hanafin  has leadership intentions - she previously stated that she would contest the leadership should a vacancy arise. Pressure will mount this evening on would-be contenders to state their position ahead of Wednesday's vote.  

(Article coming soon on the Lenihans in Fianna Fail)