The Big Question: Will Brian Cowen's succession to Taoiseach change much in Ireland?
Why are we asking this now?
Because yesterday, Brian Cowen, Ireland's finance minister, was elected leader of the Irish Republic's ruling Fianna Fail party, and thus Ireland's next Taoiseach (prime minister) in succession to Bertie Ahern, who announced his intention to resign last month. The succession to Taoiseach will not happen until four weeks time.
Will he be very different from his predecessor?
Yes. Cowen can be expected to bring a whole new style to governing Ireland. Both men are pragmatists and quintessentially Fianna Fail, which insists on regarding itself as a national movement rather than a conventional political party. But where Ahern was the master consensus-builder, schmoozing, charming and attempting to disarm everyone in sight, Cowen's instincts tend much more to the traditional them-versus-us brand of politics. He enjoys slapping down opponents, and has delivered some devastating put-downs in the Dail.
How did Cowen get the nickname Biffo?
Partly, though it is sometimes applied to others from his home county of Offaly. It stands for "Big ignorant fellow from Offaly," though less, ahem, polite variations of the word fellow are often heard. The description is thought of as particularly applicable to Cowen because he is noted for being both burly and brusque and because, unusually for a senior politician, he is relatively unconcerned with his public image and what the world at large thinks of him. For example, when he was asked if he had ever tried cannabis while a law student in Dublin he shrugged and said, in effect, that of course he had, just about everyone did in the college bar – so what? (This admission earned him the headline "Spliffo Biffo.") In any event, he added, he still got his pleasure from a few pints. His rough persona was caught by commentator Olivia O'Leary, who some years ago exasperatedly described him as: "An arrogant young man who chooses to behave like a curmudgeonly relic of the past. He's bright, ambitious and decent, but he hasn't yet learned that leaders can't behave like corner boys."
So how does such a bruiser get to be prime minister?
Through utter loyalty to the Fianna Fail party, and because he is idolised by the grassroots, who love a bit of old-style combativeness. But most of all he is getting the top job because of his reputation for immensely solid competence. He is so far ahead of other contenders that he was elected without opposition, and will have a free hand to make whatever cabinet changes he likes. He has wide experience, having been minister for finance, foreign affairs and various other posts. He has made no major blunders in any of these, leaving the critics to argue that though his competence is not in question he should have shown more imagination and initiative, and is too ready to rely on civil service briefs.
Is he financially clean?
No serious allegations against him have found their way into the public domain. It seems unlikely that, following the ordeals at the hands of financial tribunals which eventually brought down Ahern, his party would choose a new leader vulnerable to more such allegations. Recently Cowen's brother, who runs the family pub in Offaly, was fined for not paying taxes and ordered to pay almost 100,00 euro. This was only a minor embarrassment for the family, Cowen saying he had no involvement whatsoever in his brother's business.
Will he create a new cabinet?
No, it all comes ready-made courtesy of Ahern. He assembled a stable Fianna Fail-led coalition following last year's general election, and the minor parties involved are all anxious to keep their places in government. Both they and Cowen are keen not to rock the boat and to effect a Ahern-Cowen transition. He used to be anti-coalition but Ireland has been satisfactorily run by them for so many years that they have become the norm, and he has signalled his acceptance of them. Much of this pattern was due to Ahern's smoothness and the effort he put into keeping disparate partners happy.
Cowen will now be called on to rein in his old confrontational instincts so as to prevent walkouts in any crises that lie ahead. He has in any case already knocked off at least some of his own rough edges. He still smokes and enjoys drinking pints in pubs but his attacks on opponents, while losing none of their directness, now seem to be less personal. He has long been regarded as one of Ireland's cleverest politicians: four years as foreign minister have increased his appreciation of diplomacy.
What about the overall economy?
This will be his greatest challenge. The one-time roar of the Celtic Tiger has dwindled to an uncertain growl and the economy has slowed considerably. The Irish Republic has never been more prosperous, but the days when the government's coffers were awash with cash have ended. The economy is heavily dependent on the construction industry, and now house-building has fallen off and prices are dropping. Meanwhile ten years of plenty have raised expectations. Cowen's task is to hold things together in the more difficult times ahead and yesterday he stressed the need for public sector reform. The health service, which attracts much criticism, will be a priority: he once described the brief, which he held himself, as "Angola," since it contained so many political landmines.
What about the Northern Ireland peace process and Anglo-Irish relations?
His aim will be to preserve and consolidate progress in what used to be hugely problematic areas. Since the Republic's relations with both London and northern unionists have never been better he will want to build a personal relationship with Gordon Brown, on the basis that the Ahern-Blair partnership delivered so much. The peace process is now the template for Dublin-London-Belfast relationships, with near-universal support in the Republic, and no one is going to endanger an instrument which is held in such high regard. This illustrates one of the principal differences between the Ahern and Cowen administrations: the first spent a decade helping put the northern settlement together, the second will be charged with protecting what is now in place. He has lately been emphasising his personal commitment to peaceful republicanism, and an Ireland united remains Fianna Fail's ultimate vision. But in the here and now the peace process remains the only show in town. This week he set out his view: the process had succeeded by getting people away from a political narrative that focused on a final destination but instead persuaded them to embark on a common journey, allowing them to decide the destination along the way.
Will Cowen be an improvement on Bertie Ahern?
* He inherits a united party and settled government
* He inherits a functioning peace process and excellent Anglo-Irish relations
* He has no known Ahern-style financial entanglements
* Bertie Ahern was an acknowledged master of conciliation and negotiation
* Ahern was one of the heroes of the peace process
* Ahern successfully managed the Celtic Tiger
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