DUBLIN, Ireland — Brian Cowen won a critical vote of confidence in a secret ballot of party deputies in Dublin tonight, but the Irish prime minister, or taoiseach, now faces the prospect of leading his deeply divided Fianna Fail party to near annihilation in the forthcoming Irish general election.
The popular foreign minister, Micheal Martin, led an open rebellion against Cowen’s leadership among a minority of Fianna Fail parliamentarians, precipitating the vote.
After the vote Martin promptly wrote a letter of resignation, which Cowen accepted.
Martin argued at the closed meeting of 71 members of the Irish parliament’s lower house that the country had lost confidence in Cowen’s leadership and without new direction the party had no prospect of survival in the election, expected in March.
Widely blamed for Ireland’s debt crisis and for creating the conditions leading to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and EU bailout late last year, Cowen has seen Fianna Fail’s approval ratings slump to 14 percent, its lowest standing in its 84-year history.
A majority of deputies continued to support Cowen’s leadership because, as one said before the meeting, it was too close to an election “to change horses in mid-stream.”
The last straw for Martin and his sympathizers was the revelation last week that Cowen had played a round of golf in July 2008 with disgraced Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean Fitzpatrick, which he had failed to disclose.
Cowen was forced to deny in parliament that the affairs of the bank were discussed during the game and subsequent dinner.
Fitzpatrick has not been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing, but the event was widely seen as an example of the cronyism that has bedeviled Irish politics.
Fitzpatrick resigned as the bank’s chairman in December 2008 during revelations of hidden loans, a scandal that led to a collapse of the bank and its nationalization.
Looking relieved after the vote, Cowen, in typical blustering fashion, declared that he would lead Fianna Fail into the election as a “fighter” against great odds.
“We have been fighting for this country and fighting for its people, for its very survival, for its sustainability against one of the greatest economic and financial crises we have seen in over 80 years,” he declared.
Cowen’s survival will calm nerves in Brussels, where European Union officials had expressed dismay at the prospect that his ouster might scupper the finance bill currently going through the Irish parliament, jeopardizing Ireland's ability to meet the conditions for the EU-IMF bailout negotiated in December.
This could have had a ripple effect in the EU and created new instability in the eurozone, of which Ireland is a member.
Tuesday’s events have left other political reputations damaged, including that of Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.
Before the vote Lenihan damned Cowen with faint praise, saying he was the best person to lead the party but at the same time accusing him of “lapses in judgment.”
Lenihan was charged by several backbenchers with encouraging dissent in private conversations and of lobbying for the top job himself.
Sean Power, Fianna Fail deputy for Kildare South, who opposed Cowen, said he was “surprised and shocked” at Lenihan’s last-minute decision to back the prime minister, claiming that “the concerns we expressed were very much shared by him.”
Lenihan protested that while he was flattered by the suggestion that he might become party leader himself, the critical financial situation in Ireland made it impossible for him to interrupt the “good working relationship” he enjoyed with Cowen.
Before the vote Micheal Martin said that the mismanagement of the IMF intervention in Irish affairs was a watershed moment that led him to challenge Cowen for the leadership.
If, as expected, Fianna Fail is severely punished by the electorate in March, Martin will be in a position to make a new bid for the office of taoiseach.
As minister for health, he introduced Europe’s first comprehensive smoking ban in Ireland and is regarded as a successful foreign minister.
Another cabinet member damaged by the crisis is Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin. Openly ambitious for the leadership and privately a critic of Cowen, Hanafin promised a television audience Monday that she would reveal her voting intention at Tuesday’s meeting.
However, with Cowen likely to win according to newspaper polls of backbenchers, Hanafin seemingly lost her nerve and confined herself to saying she would vote according to what she had told the taoiseach privately.
While Cowen needed the support of 36 deputies to win the motion of confidence, which he proposed himself, the actual voting figures were not disclosed.
A spring election has been in the cards since December, when Fianna Fail’s junior partner in government, the Green Party, announced it would pull out after helping to pass the finance bill.
Opinion polls predict that the election will produce a coalition government of the centrist Fine Gael party and the smaller Labour Party.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have their roots in the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s and both have traditional support from all sections of society. Fianna Fail, which emerged from the republican side in the civil war, has been the most successful political party in Europe after the Swedish Social Democratic Party.
Fianna Fail, which translates roughly as “Soldiers of Destiny,” has been in power for 53 years of its history and has led the Irish government continually since 1987 with the exception of the period from 1994 to 1997.
Its collapse would revolutionize politics and create conditions for a more conventional left-right political divide in Ireland.