Irish premier Brian Cowen survives confidence vote

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen (16 January 2011) Mr Cowen has been under fire over his contact with Anglo Irish Bank bosses

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Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has survived a secret confidence vote on his leadership, securing his position as leader of the Fianna Fail party.

The exact result of the vote is unknown but, to win, Mr Cowen needed to secure at least 36 of the 71 votes.

Mr Cowen told Irish network RTE he had accepted the resignation of his foreign minister shortly after the ballot.

Micheal Martin challenged Mr Cowen on Sunday, months after Ireland accepted an 85bn-euro ($113bn) bail-out.

After the vote, Mr Cowen said that Mr Martin "remains a very good friend".

Mr Martin had argued that a change in leader would put fire in the belly of party workers and supporters, but he said after the vote: "The taoiseach continues to have my full support as head of government."

Government Chief Whip John Curran said he hoped this would bring an end to the issues that had led to the vote.

Analysis

The survival of Irish prime minister Brian Cowen is a tribute to his ability to divide and conquer.

The three other potential leaders within his party - Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin - were wrong-footed by his decision to force a vote on his leadership.

They were not ready to oust him, they had no agreed strategy and only Mr Martin decided to mount a public campaign against him.

It was a relatively lonely battle, and a re-energised Mr Cowen fought a powerful rearguard action, living up to his nickname, Biffo.

However, he will have little time to celebrate. Within the next 100 days, he will be fighting for survival again, this time in an Irish general election.

If he loses - and opinion polls suggest he will lose heavily - his time as Fianna Fail leader will be over. The favourite to succeed him? Micheál Martin.

"The party will be united behind Brian Cowen as Taoiseach," he said, according to the Press Association.

He also won the endorsement of Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, who is standing down at the election.

'Lapses of judgement'

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, also seen as a contender for the party leadership, went on the attack, despite pledging his support for Mr Cowen.

He hit out at recently revealed contacts between the taoiseach and Anglo Irish Bank bosses as the bank neared collapse.

These involved a golf game and dinner at the Druid's Glen resort in Wicklow and a direct phone call with bankrupt ex-Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick from Malaysia in 2008.

But Mr Lenihan also revived six-month-old allegations that Mr Cowen had sounded hungover in a live broadcast from Galway.

"The taoiseach has had his difficulties," Mr Lenihan said.

Mr Martin said he "would insist on my resignation if my views did not prevail"

"I'll make no secret of the fact that I was not happy with what happened in Galway in connection with the interview and the recent developments in relation to a certain golf game he had.

"I think they showed lapses of judgement."

Mr Cowen has denied his contacts with the bank influenced in any way the introduction of a state-backed bank guarantee scheme.

He has also denied he was drunk or hungover during the Galway interview, dismissing the allegations as a pathetic stunt and a new low for politics.

On his own political future, Mr Lenihan said he had been "very flattered" at suggestions he should lead Fianna Fail but Mr Cowen was the best person to "lead us into this election".

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