Europe

Brian Cowen endorsed as Fianna Fail leader

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen leaves a news conference in Dublin, 22 November
Image caption Mr Cowen is facing an attack from within his own Fianna Fail party

The Fianna Fail parliamentary party has endorsed the leadership of Taoiseach Brian Cowen into the forthcoming general election.

Mr Cowen's future has been a much talked about topic of conversation among his colleagues in recent days in the wake of the 85bn euros bail-out loan.

It has been another extraordinary week in Irish politics.

The Fianna Fail-Green coalition government, despite its shrinking Dail majority, managed to win all the budget votes, despite opposition claims that the budget unfairly hits the poor by cutting social welfare spending and by bringing low-paid workers into the tax net.

But when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's speech is re-examined you get a clearer idea as to who he blames for the country's economic mess - the banks, obviously.

But he also talks about the banks' "unforgivable" loan losses which "reflect the recklessness of lending decisions during the bubble years and the weakness of the previous regulatory framework".

Strong words, indeed, considering that his boss, Brian Cowen, was finance minister for much of this period.

Inevitably those comments have led to speculation that Mr Lenihan might be prepared to move against Mr Cowen.

The speculation was further fuelled by remarks made by Fianna Fail backbench TD, Mary O'Rourke, who is also Brian Lenihan's aunt, who indicated that she was surprised that Mr Cowen's wife hadn't told her husband it was time to go.

The game was up, she seemed to be hinting, especially after an opinion poll last week put his personal rating at 8% and Fianna Fail's at 13% - behind Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein.

For a party that almost believes it has a divine right to rule - subject to the popular vote, of course - that opinion poll hit hard.

But after the budget, Brian Cowen came out fighting; nobody, he said, told his wife what to do and it was his intention to lead Fianna Fail into the next election.

The taoiseach put in a number of strong performances in the Dail highlighting the differences between the two main opposition parties, the likely partners in the next coalition after next year's election.

His ministerial colleagues privately and publicly said Mr Cowen would be their leader in the 2011 poll and that a re-invigorated Mr Cowen would limit some of the expected damage the party would take from voters.

Then again there have been many false dawns about a re-invigorated Brian Cowen.

What was also noticeable was that the foreign minister, Micheal Martin, a good media performer, was straying away from his brief and doing interviews on the economy.

Some Lenihan supporters saw that as a coming together of the Cowen and Martin camps to stop their man.

'Damaged'

But Mr Lenihan's followers, their critics argue, fail to see how damaged the finance minister also is because of the bail-out loan.

And that may be the real reason why the Fianna Fail parliamentary party on Thursday endorsed Brian Cowen as their leader into the next election. Who else would want to lead the party into almost certain electoral defeat?

It's still not clear when the 2011 election might be.

Originally the Greens wanted it called in January but Fianna Fail, backed up by the European authhorities, said the finance bill, that puts much of the budget into legislation, had to be passed first.

All of which would have meant a poll sometime in March, probably before the St Patrick's Day ministerial exodus to the Irish diaspora around the world.

But now it seems the Greens want some of their favoured policies also put into law, such as an end to corporate political donations and measures to deal with climate change.

This could further delay the election, possibly to April.

But in the aftermath of the bail-out it's not always advisable to make political predictions.

Who would have known that at the start of the week that Brian Cowen, the man derided by some of his colleagues as Mr 8%, would end it in a much stronger position.

Strange times, indeed!

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