Irish Prime Minister resigns as leader of Fianna Fail

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The Independent Online

In a dramatic move smacking of desperation, the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, said yesterday that he will stand down as leader of Fianna Fail but hold on to the office of Taoiseach.

Mr Cowen's decision follows a chaotic week in which much of his personal authority drained away, largely because of his own counter-productive actions.

Fianna Fail, traditionally the largest party in the country, now faces heading into an election – scheduled for 11 March – with two leaders; Mr Cowen as Prime Minister plus his successor as party leader.

"I am concerned that renewed internal criticism of my leadership of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention from important debates," Mr Cowen said. "My intention now is to concentrate fully on government business and on continuing to implement the recovery plan."

The new leader will be chosen on Wednesday. The favourite is Cork South Central TD Micheal Martin, who resigned from the cabinet last week.

As minister for foreign affairs, Mr Martin had escaped much of the blame for the country's economic difficulties. One Irish bookmaker quoted his odds as 1-20 on yesterday, with a number of backbenchers already publicly endorsing him.

In saying last week that Mr Cowen should step down, Mr Martin came to be regarded as the boldest of potential contenders.

The loss of the party leadership is a humiliation for the Prime Minister. Until yesterday, he was adamant that he would not resign from either post. But the events of last week, when he clumsily tried to bring in five new cabinet ministers, resulted in a wave of derision.

It also brought incredulity and near despair among the grassroots members of Fianna Fail, many of whom viewed Mr Cowen's move as the final straw for his leadership. Election defeat has for months looked inevitable, but the party is now simply disintegrating. Several ministers have resigned, while others have said they believe Mr Cowen should depart.

The once-mighty party is now standing at just 13 per cent in opinion polls, with Mr Cowen's personal rating even lower. Opinion is divided between those who believe Fianna Fail will take a severe hammering in the election and those who think it faces absolute meltdown.

The party might not even stay in power until 11 March, since opposition parties are trying to stage votes of no-confidence in the Prime Minister on Tuesday.

Mr Cowen is renowned for his in-fighting, but he has made several moves which suggest that his judgement has diminished.

The likely outcome of the election is a coalition of the right-wing Fine Gael party and the left-wing Labour party. Despite their economic differences, the two parties have worked together in the past, and opinion polls suggest that together they will have a clear majority.