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Irish premier resigns as party leader, stays as PM

Prime Minister Brian Cowen announced Saturday that he has resigned as leader of Ireland's dominant Fianna Fail party but intends to keep leading the government through the March 11 election. Opposition chiefs demanded his immediate ouster as premier.

Cowen's surprise move capped a week of political crises that brought his coalition government to the verge of collapse. Never before in Irish history has a politician sought to remain prime minister without being leader of the main government party.

Cowen — deeply unpopular because of Ireland's stunning slide to the brink of bankruptcy — pledged that the short-term split in power would not "in any way affect our ability to do our business."

But opposition leaders decried his maneuver as an affront to democracy and vowed to expel Cowen from power in a no-confidence vote next week in parliament. Even some Fianna Fail lawmakers said Cowen should have admitted full defeat now and dissolved the entire parliament for a mid-February election.

Enda Kenny, leader of the main opposition Fine Gael party, said 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."

Kenny said that if Cowen refuses to resign by Tuesday, Fine Gael will pursue an immediate vote of no confidence in parliament against his premiership.

Cowen said he was confident of winning that vote despite his narrow and fluctuating parliamentary majority.

The other major opposition party, Labour, said it would back the Fine Gael move. Labour Sen. Alex White said he found it "incredible beyond belief" that Cowen would promote government instability for the sake of trying to bolster Fianna Fail's election chances.

"What's it going to take to prise these people's hands off the levers of power? He (Cowen) shouldn't be there for one more day," White said.

Some Fianna Fail lawmakers agreed with the opposition's frustrations, but said they were obliged to vote to support Cowen.

"I say this with the greatest of respect for Brian Cowen, but what he's just done is pointless and counterproductive. It would be better to call a general election now," said Fianna Fail lawmaker Charlie O'Connor.

Since Thursday, a growing number of Fianna Fail lawmakers have been demanding Cowen's resignation as party chief after he bungled an attempted pre-election Cabinet reshuffle. He accepted five back-to-back Cabinet resignations in a precalculated move to create vacancies for younger lawmakers.

But, inexplicably, Cowen failed to secure support beforehand from the other party in Cowen's coalition government, the Greens, who received no warning of the mass resignations — and vetoed his planned appointments of fresh faces as a cynical pre-election stunt.

The Green Party instead humiliated Cowen, forcing him to announce a March 11 date for an election that the embattled premier had sought to delay since November.

Cowen insisted Saturday he had taken his decision to resign as party leader only that morning over breakfast with his family, and had not discussed the move with other Cabinet ministers.

"I'm concerned that renewed internal criticism of Fianna Fail is deflecting attention from this important debate," he said of the March 11 election, which Fianna Fail is universally forecast to lose.

Cowen — who last week had rejected the notion that he could quit as Fianna Fail chief while remaining prime minister — conceded that his move was unprecedented since Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922.

"This isn't the ideal situation, but we will manage the situation," he said.

Cowen said by stepping down as Fianna Fail leader, he could focus purely on the immediate task of passing two pieces of deficit-fighting legislation linked to Ireland's November negotiation of an emergency €67.5 billion ($91 billion) credit line from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

He said Fianna Fail's next leader would "prepare and move forward the organization for the (election) campaign itself."

Fianna Fail — which is pronounced "FEEN-uh Fall" and means "soldiers of destiny" in Gaelic — has won the most seats in parliament in every national election since 1932. It has formed governments following the past six elections dating back to 1987.

But all opinion polls over the past year suggest that Fianna Fail faces a thrashing of historic proportions this time.