Ahern's successor will bring a rougher edge to Irish politics

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The Independent Online

Brian Cowen, the Irish Finance Minister, became leader of the Fianna Fail party yesterday and will take over as prime minister of the Republic of Ireland early next month.

Viewed on all sides as a formidable political figure, his command of the once-fractured party was demonstrated by the fact that he was the only contender for the post. His succession was, therefore, something of a political stroll, since he is viewed as having out-performed all potential rivals during a career that has included many heavyweight cabinet positions.

Looked on as a combative figure while his predecessor Bertie Ahern was seen as one of nature's conciliators, Mr Cowen will certainly bring a difference in style if not in substance.

The principal theme of his new post is bound to be his management of an Irish economy that is slowing down following years of phenomenal growth.

He takes over from Mr Ahern who, in almost 11 years as prime minister, won three general elections – an unparalleled feat in the modern era. Mr Ahern was regarded as a competent handler of the economy and as one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process.

But he announced a surprise resignation last month in the face of relentless pressure from investigations into alleged financial sleaze. Inquiries into a series of mysterious transactions will continue even though he is about to leave office.

Mr Cowen, in addition to his legendary political rough edges, is also regarded as one of Ireland's sharpest political brains and one of its most competent ministers. He has, in his time, been minister for finance, foreign affairs, health, labour, transport and energy.

In each post, he was regarded as solid rather than innovative. Aged 48, his 24-year career in the Irish parliament began when he won a by-election caused by the death of his father, who was also a Fianna Fail representative.

He is expected to seek early meetings with Gordon Brown and with unionist and republican members of the power-sharing Belfast administration. At a news conference yesterday he said: "On a personal level, I am excited by the challenge, if somewhat daunted by the responsibility."

Last year he was publicly endorsed by Mr Ahern as his natural successor. Yesterday, he paid tribute to what he described as Mr Ahern's "extraordinary passion, innate courtesy and a huge work ethic".

He maintained Ireland was well placed to deal with the global economic uncertainties, declaring: "This country is not immune from the international trend of the past six to eight months but the fundamentals of this economy are strong. We will confront those challenges."

The opposition Labour leader Eamon Gilmore warned that he would not have a parliamentary honeymoon, saying Mr Cowen faced very serious economic challenges and a rise in unemployment. He accused the new leader of mishandling the economy and of dithering. While any cabinet changes Mr Cowen might make will be carefully designed not to upset the present coalition, Fianna Fail's senior figures are being kept in the dark about any reshuffle plans.