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08 December 2023

Crisis-hit Irish PM felled by party


Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's resignation as his party's leader marks a humiliating fall for the political veteran, who was downed by an economic crisis and finally undone by a botched reshuffle.

Just four days after he survived a confidence vote in his centrist Fianna Fail party, the result of months of pressure over his handling of Ireland's debt-ravaged economy, he announced Saturday he would step down as leader ahead of March 11 polls.

Cowen said he intends to continue as prime minister, although he must survive another confidence vote on Tuesday -- this time in his government.

Virtually the whole of Cowen's premiership has coincided with Ireland's demotion from the booming so-called "Celtic Tiger" to one of the sick economies of Europe, and his support has plunged along with his country's credit ratings.

Nicknamed Biffo -- the polite version is said to stand for "Big Ignorant Fellow From Offaly", the rural central county where he was born -- Cowen was once a popular figure with many of his party's backbench lawmakers.

He was seen as a political "bruiser" and a savage debater in parliament, but is also a gifted mimic and enjoys breaking into a song over a pint of stout.

The 51-year-old even admitted to smoking marijuana, saying that "unlike president Clinton, I did inhale".

However, as his popularity collapsed, this side of him turned into a liability -- last September, Cowen was forced to deny being drunk or hung over during a live radio interview.

He managed to cling on until this week, when a leadership challenge by foreign minister Micheal Martin sparked off a tumultuous series of events.

Cowen survived the challenge, but his failed attempt to use Martin's subsequent resignation to spark a reshuffle lost him support among his Green Party coalition partners and crucially, within Fianna Fail.

Born in Clara, in Offaly, on January 10, 1960, Cowen first won election to the Dail (lower house of parliament) aged just 24 in a by-election prompted by the death of his lawmaker father Bernard Cowen, a former junior minister.

He became the youngest member of the house and rose rapidly through the ranks, gaining a reputation as a no-nonsense operator with a finely-tuned political brain.

Plucked from the backbenches by then prime minister Albert Reynolds and fast-tracked into the cabinet in 1992, Cowen held a number of high-ranking posts before taking the top job.

He was minister for labour (1992-93), transport (1993-94), health (1997-2000) and foreign affairs (2000-04), before taking on the post of finance minister for four years and finally becoming prime minister in May 2008.

Cowen now risks being forever remembered as the leader who had to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for a bailout.

For more than a week in November, as Ireland's economy teetered on the brink of collapse, he insisted Dublin did not need help.

But his government then accepted 67 billion euros (90 billion dollars) from the EU and IMF -- a deal which brought with it tough austerity measures for Ireland's people.

Critics of the 51-year-old also point to his time as finance minister, when he has been accused of failing to put a brake on reckless lending by Ireland's banks to property developers which left them exposed when crisis hit.

This month brought fresh criticism with revelations about previously undisclosed contacts Cowen had with Anglo Irish Bank's then boss, Sean FitzPatrick. Anglo Irish had to be nationalised to prevent it from collapse.

Cowen strongly denies any improper conduct, saying the bank was not discussed.

Cowen is married with two daughters.