Ireland’s Cowen Stays as Leader; Challenger Martin Resigns

Ireland’s Prime Minister Brian Cowen won backing for his leadership from his Fianna Fail party, prompting the resignation of his main challenger, Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.

Cowen, 51, won a secret ballot of 71 lawmakers, spokesman John Curran told reporters in Dublin. While Martin, 50, opposed him, Cowen won the backing of Finance Minister Brian Lenihan today, helping swing the vote in his favor. The ballots have been shredded and detail of the vote won’t be released.

“I’m not interested in tearing anyone down,” Martin told reporters. “We go into the election as a united party behind our” prime minister.

Martin accepted the “consequences” of challenging the leader, Cowen said in an interview with national broadcaster RTE. A former Enterprise Minister, Martin moved against Cowen as polls indicated that support for the party has plunged to a record low before elections due within three months. Since Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern 2 1/2 years ago, unemployment has doubled, the financial system came close to collapse and the government sought an international bailout.

Support for Fianna Fail, in power since 1997, has fallen to 14 percent, while support for Fine Gael, the main opposition party, stands at 35 percent, according to an opinion poll this month carried out by Red C for bookmaker Paddy Power Plc.

Watershed

The government has introduced four austerity budgets since 2008, raising taxes and cutting spending, as it tries to reduce the fiscal deficit to the European Union limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2014.

Cowen presided over a 85 billion-euro ($113 billion) bailout last year, as investors shunned the country’s bonds on concern that the scale of losses in the nation’s financial system were rising. Martin said today that the handling of the bailout was a “watershed moment” in undermining his support for Cowen.

“We are fighting for the survival of our country,” Cowen said today.

Cowen won the backing of Finance Minister Brian Lenihan. In an interview with national broadcaster RTE today, Lenihan said that Cowen has shown “lapses of judgment”, including a golf game with Sean Fitzpatrick, the former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank Corp., months before the state guaranteed the debts and deposits of six Irish lenders.

Still, Lenihan said the country needs “stable political leadership” and he’d support Cowen in today’s vote.

“Your first duty is to the country,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Colm Heatley in Belfast at cheatley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story Colin Keatinge at ckeatinge@bloomberg.net.

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