Cowen standing down as Fianna Fail leader

Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen today announced he is standing down as leader of the ruling Fianna Fail party but will remain at the head of Government until the March general election.

After more than a week of political turmoil and a string of ministerial resignations, Mr Cowen said the election should be fought on policies not a leadership issue.

"I'm concerned that renewed internal criticism of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention from this important debate," Mr Cowen said.

"Therefore, taking everything into account after discussing the matter with my family I have taken, on my own counsel, the decision to step down."

Voters will go to the polls on March 11.

Mr Cowen said he made the dramatic decision to resign after sitting down with his family last night.

"I have been in touch with no senior party figures in relation to this decision," he said.

Mr Cowen said he spoke to John Gormley, leader of the junior coalition party the Greens, before making the announcement.

He said his resignation will not affect Government business.

"My political assessment is that this is the right thing to do for the party," he said.

"But it's about me directing my attention to the country."

The Taoiseach made the announcement at the Merrion Hotel, central Dublin, after a week of unprecedented political turmoil.

Six ministers resigned, Mr Cowen's Cabinet reshuffle collapsed, the Greens threatened to pull out of Government and ministers claimed a breakdown of communications.

But Mr Cowen claimed he was not looking back.

"I believe that it was my duty to put in place the best possible team we could to fight this election to put them on the front bench and into position," the Taoiseach said.

"It was not a cynical view by me it was a political act."

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