Ireland's Deputy PM on Course to Replace Scandal-Hit Ahern

The path quickly cleared Thursday for Brian Cowen to become Ireland's next prime minister after virtually the entire Cabinet backed him to replace Bertie Ahern.

Cabinet heavyweight Cowen, 48, appears likely to be the only candidate when nominations for the next leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland's perennial No. 1 party, close Monday. Analysts expect him to receive unanimous backing from Fianna Fail lawmakers the following day and formally replace Ahern when the parliament elects a new prime minister May 7.

He has been a loyal Ahern lieutenant throughout the past 11 years of his government, and has served since 2004 as both deputy prime minister and finance minister. Cowen has been known as "the anointed one" ever since Ahern declared him his preferred successor 10 months ago.

Cowen's lock on the top job became apparent as more than a dozen Cabinet colleagues declared they would not challenge him. The lone remaining holdout was Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, who refused to comment.

Backers cited Cowen's exceptionally broad experience as minister atop six government departments since 1992. They credited him as a no-nonsense, straight-talking leader uninterested in pursuing Ahern's populist style.

On Wednesday, Ahern shocked Ireland by announcing plans to step down as premier and party leader. His move followed an 18-month investigation into his 1990s finances that has exposed him as the recipient of large amounts of ill-documented cash, some of which he admits came from business friends. He denies that any of the money amounts to bribes.

Ahern spent his first day as a lame-duck premier delivering a speech to a University College Dublin conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday peace accord for Northern Ireland, a landmark pact that Ahern was instrumental in achieving on April 10, 1998.

Journalists pressed him about why he was quitting now — and whether grueling testimony last month from his former office secretary, Grainne Carruth, had been the tipping point.

Carruth frequently broke down in the stand after denying, then admitting, she had deposited 15,500 pounds (euro23,000, US$30,000) in British currency into bank accounts controlled by Ahern and his family in April 1994.

That evidence contradicts Ahern's insistence that the money Carruth deposited came from his normal monthly paycheck. He has rejected the probe's wider claims that he received five-figure payments in both British pounds and U.S. dollars.

Ahern said he had been mulling the moment and manner of his retirement for weeks, and Carruth's testimony played no role.

But Ahern said the fact-finding tribunal — which was formed by his own government in 1997 to ferret out bribery involving property developers, lobbyists and government officials — had abused Carruth. He declined to comment on the conflict between her testimony and his own.

"There was no need to harangue her. She just didn't remember something," Ahern said. He called the tribunal's questioning of Carruth "low-life stuff."

Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, who is no relation to the prime minister, said it did trouble Ahern that friends, colleagues and his former girlfriend all had endured difficult testimony on his behalf.

"Being the decent man that he is, it really rankled him that his friends had to go into the bear pit of the tribunal — because of him," Dermot Ahern said.

Since Cowen stands little chance of losing, Ireland's major betting company, Paddy Power PLC, paid out winnings Thursday to people who laid down money on his triumph. It reported losing more than euro100,000 (US$150,000) because Cowen had been an overwhelming favorite from the start.

The next Fianna Fail leader is all but certain to receive the needed majority backing when Dail Eireann votes for the next prime minister next month.

Ahern's three-party coalition has a nine-seat majority in the 166-member Dail Eireann. Unless the coalition breaks down, his successor will not be obliged to call another election until mid-2012.