"I MADE one big decision today, which is to step down as Uachtarán of Fianna Fáil. I will of course consult with my organisation and my family on that matter but I would certainly hope to do so," was An Taoiseach Brian Cowen's response when he was pressed on the issue of whether he'll be seeking re-election.
By Alan Walsh
The Wellesley Room in Dublin's Merrion Hotel bulged with journalists, photographers and TV cameras last Saturday afternoon as Mr Cowen, following a turbulent week where he'd earlier won a confidence motion in his leadership, declared his intention to step down as Leader of Fianna Fil and continue as Taoiseach.
"I am concerned that renewed internal criticism of my leadership is deflecting attention from important debates. Therefore, taking everything into account, and having discussed the matter with my family, I have decided on my own counsel to step down. My intention now is to concentrate fully on government business," outlined the Clara native who became the country's 12th Taoiseach on Wednesday, May 7, 2008.
Fianna Fil's Laois/Offaly selection convention is scheduled for next Tuesday, February 1 in the Tullamore Court Hotel and there is growing unease among FF grassroots at the prospect of a ticket that may not include their star performer.
Mr Cowen was first elected to Dil Eireann on May 17, 1984 following a by-election called after the death of his late father Ber and in the '07 election he polled a staggering 19,102 first preferences, the highest vote in the country.
Minister of State John Moloney said it would have a devastating impact on FF's prospects in Laois/Offaly if Mr Cowen didn't contest the election. In '07, following a gruelling 32-hour marathon count in Birr's Marian Hall, Mr Moloney filled the last of the 166 seats in the 30th Dil, seeing off the challenge of his Edenderry FF colleague Cllr John Foley.
"I would find it impossible to consider a FF ticket in Laois/Offaly without Brian Cowen so I have to absolutely believe he will be a candidate on the ticket again. It is a personal decision for Brian to take but I do believe it would have a devastating effect on the organisation if he doesn't run," commented Mr Moloney.
Mr Cowen previously stated it would be confusing if a situation arose where the leader of FF wouldn't also be Taoiseach and when asked if his decision on Saturday was cynical, he hit back, "The cynical interpretation of the arrangement doesn't come from me. I made the point that I didn't think it was the ideal situation but we will manage the situation and people need to be assured of that. This is the first time it has happened for the FF party. I want to assure you the Government will discharge its duties properly and appropriately as we sought to have done right throughout our term."
He added, "There is important work to be done in the national interest and this is acknowledged by all parties - passing of the Finance Bill and also the NAMA amendment Bill which we have to undertake under the EU / IMF financial package by the first quarter of this year. So we will manage the situation and I can assure you I will direct my attention to my Government responsibilities as Taoiseach and the new leader of Fianna Fil will prepare for and move forward the organisation for the election campaign itself."
Mr Cowen attended the North South Ministerial conference in Armagh on Friday and overnight arrived at his decision to step aside.
"I have not been in touch with any of my colleagues in relation to this decision. I have been left with time and space to deal with these issues myself. I respect other's opinions but they haven't been communicating to me in relation to my leadership of the party. There has been loyalty to me at all times in that respect. But in relation to my own decision, I made it on my own counsel.
"This is the right thing to do for the party but importantly it is about me directing my attention as my job as Taoiseach to do what is right for the country which is to get our financial legislation passed and then call the election."
He predicted a quick leadership contest and four candidates have emerged - 1/8 favourite and former Foreign Affairs Minister Michel Martin, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan at odds of 9/2, Arts, Sport & Tourism Minister (also Enterprise Minister) Mary Hanafin (18/1) and Social Protection Minister (Also Defence & Environment Minister) Eamon O'Cuiv (16/1).
Mr Martin resigned after failing to oust Minister Cowen during a confidence vote last Tuesday week. FF TD's vote later today, (Wednesday, January 26) to decide the identity of their 8th leader.
On surviving the confidence vote, Mr Cowen quipped, "We'd a civilised public and private debate on serious issues regarding the biggest political organisation in the land and I think it reflected very well on the party. It wasn't your traditional type of contest, we've moved on. There is a new generation of politicians moving on and dealing with these matters in a mature and adult way."
He took full responsibility for the manner in his hoped cabinet reshuffle badly backfired. "I have to take responsibility for what subsequently happened," explained Mr Cowen.
He added, "Tony Killeen, John Curran and I have given our views on our meeting the Green Party. I believed it was my duty to put in place the best possible team we could to fight this election and put them on the front bench and put them in ministerial positions.
"It was not a cynical move by me. It was me making a political act to put in to place those people that I felt would be able to best advocate for the party and also our future position after the election and that they would all have a stake in that election. I think that was a sensible political principle. It is a principle of accountability to which I subscribe. It was suggested by media and others as being something different and I don't accept that. I've explained my motivations."
In his prepared script, Mr Cowen outlined, "I have an abiding commitment to and respect for the Fianna Fil party, its history and traditions."
And he remained loyal to those values under media questioning.
"I go forward with whoever the next leader will be and all of my colleagues. We need to move forward together. The party is much bigger than me. There are tens of thousands of activists up and down the country. And whatever capacity I have ever served or will ever serve it will always be on behalf of the party."
Mr Cowen also refused to look back with regret on his spell as leader, a position he assumed in April '08 after the resignation of Bertie Ahern. "I am not looking back with regret. I made a big decision today. We're talking about the future of our country. We'll have plenty of time to talk about the past."