Irish cabinet backs Cowen as next Taoiseach

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The Independent Online

The election of Ireland's Finance minister, Brian Cowen, as the country's next prime minister became a formality yesterday when all but one of his cabinet colleagues endorsed him for the post.

Mr Cowen could succeed Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach as early as next week after their Fianna Fail party, following short but intensive discussions, confirmed the perception that he was Mr Ahern's obvious successor.

Only one of Ireland's senior politicians, the Transport Minister, Noel Dempsey, refrained from joining the chorus of acclaim for Mr Cowen.

This could result in a contest for the leadership of the party, but even if it does Mr Cowen is expected to win with ease.

Mr Ahern, meanwhile, sniped back at the official tribunal whose investigations into his financial affairs brought his career to a premature end, describing the questioning of his former secretary as "low-life stuff".

The moment when the secretary, Grainne Carruth, broke down in the witness box while attempting to endorse Mr Ahern's version of events is regarded as one of the key moments in the run-up to Mr Ahern's resignation on Wednesday.

He complained of her questioning: "That was just appalling. It was totally unnecessary – talk about how not do to do something. There was no need to harangue her. She just didn't remember something – she was concealing nothing." There is, however, little sign in Dublin of any strong sense that Mr Ahern was unfairly treated by the investigation, which dogged him for several years before he bowed to the inevitable and stood down.

Enda Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael opposition, called for a general election to ensure the new Fianna Fail leader had a mandate to govern. But the government is highly unlikely to oblige him since – apart from Mr Ahern's personal financial travails – it has been running efficiently since its formation just under a year ago.

Mr Ahern put together a coalition of his party and a number of smaller elements who are generally happy to be in office and will not want to endanger their status. They will therefore be hoping for a seamless Ahern-Cowen transition.

Mr Cowen as the new prime minister is similarly unlikely to do anything that would upset the smooth running of the coalition.

Mr Ahern excelled as a coalition-builder, working well with smaller parties while expertly handling Fianna Fail, which was once notorious for its ferocious in-fighting.

One of the challenges for Mr Cowen, who is regarded as a more abrasive personality, will be to continue Mr Ahern's success in avoiding friction.

Although Mr Ahern won three general elections, he never secured an overall majority in the Irish parliament. As a result he always headed coalition administrations. In Ireland these were once regarded as potentially fragile entities, but Mr Ahern established that they could provide stable government.

Much attention at the moment is focused on who Mr Cowen will choose as his deputy from the four or five possibilities in the present cabinet. Many believe that he may favour a Dublin personality, since he represents a constituency in the Irish midlands.

Fianna Fail decided yesterday that nominations for the post of Taoiseach will close on Monday, after which it will be decided whether a contest is to be held or whether Mr Cowen will be elected by acclamation.

Over the course of his career Mr Cowen has held half a dozen cabinet posts, most notably finance and foreign affairs. Micheal Martin, one of the ministers who yesterday endorsed him, said: "He is the logical choice given the breadth and depth of policy areas that he's presided over."

Another, Martin Cullen, said: "Brian Cowen has that sort of gravitas, he has that sort of deep understanding, he has the international experience that is going to be required for this country."

*Beverly Flynn was readmitted last night into Fianna Fail, four years after her expulsion when she lost a libel action over claims that she helped bank customers to evade tax.

It is understood that the Mayo TD was brought back into the fold by a unanimous decision of the party's National Executive on the recommendation of outgoing Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.