Irish PM Brian Cowen steps down as Fianna Fail leader

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Media captionBrian Cowen: "I have taken, on my own counsel, the decision to step down"

Irish PM Brian Cowen has said he is stepping down as leader of the ruling Fianna Fail party but will continue to run the government until the general election on 11 March.

Mr Cowen said the focus of the election should be policy and not personality.

In a week of political crises, Mr Cowen first survived a party leadership vote but was forced to call the election after a bungled cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Cowen faced immediate criticism for his plan to stay on as PM.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said it was "simply not tenable" for Mr Cowen to remain in the post.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said that he would back a motion of no confidence in Mr Cowen as PM on Tuesday unless there was a dissolution of parliament.

However, Fine Gael's Michael Noonan also said it would stave off the vote, and help pass a crucial finance bill, if Mr Cowen was prepared to dissolve parliament on Friday and bring the election forward.

It is the first time since 1994 a politician has been prime minister, or Taoiseach, while not leading the main party of government.

Mr Cowen has seen his ratings plummet amid Ireland's economic crisis. The country was given a bail-out package by the European Union and International Monetary Fund last year.

'Deep affection'

After the tumultuous week, Mr Cowen said: "Taking everything into account, after discussing the matter with my family, I have taken, on my own counsel, the decision to step down."

He added: "I have been in touch with no senior party figures in relation to this decision."

Mr Cowen said he had "deep affection" for the men and women who worked for Fianna Fail and wanted it to be in the best possible position to fight the election campaign.

"The focus should be on what policies the political parties are offering, rather than on the narrow focus of personality politics.

"I am concerned that renewed internal criticism of my leadership of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention from these important debates," Mr Cowen said.

The PM said: "My intention now is to concentrate fully on government business and on continuing to implement the recovery plan.

"The government will continue to govern the country."

He also vowed that the government would win the no-confidence vote on Tuesday. The coalition has a two-seat majority in parliament.

Fianna Fail has confirmed it will choose its new leader on Wednesday. Nominations must be in by 1300 on Monday. Brian Lenihan, Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin are among the leading contenders.

Mr Cowen pledged his "full support" for whoever was selected.

However, opposition parties insist Mr Cowen must quit as PM and bring the election forward.

Mr Kenny said Mr Cowen's "attempt to remain as head of government despite losing the confidence of his own party is another sad example of Fianna Fail putting their own survival ahead of the country's survival".

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "The government and Fianna Fail are in chaos. Their focus is not on the problems facing the country."

One of Mr Cowen's own Fianna Fail MPs, Charlie O'Connor, also opposed his move.

"I say this with the greatest of respect for Brian Cowen, but what he's just done is pointless and counterproductive."

Criticism of Mr Cowen has intensified this month following revelations he played golf with the former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean FitzPatrick, months before the bank was nationalised to prevent it from collapse. Mr Cowen has denied any wrongdoing.

On Tuesday, Mr Cowen won a vote of confidence in his leadership of Fianna Fail. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheal Martin, who had opposed Mr Cowen, resigned.

However on Thursday, Mr Cowen bungled a planned government reshuffle. His coalition partners, the Greens, were angered by the reshuffle and blocked it. Mr Cowen then called the general election.