At 2 o'clock Irish time, Brian Cowen, announced his resignation as the leader of Fianna Fáil, but not as Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This comes at the end of a week which saw Cowen win a motion of confidence from the parliamentary party, the resignation of six ministers from the government, and his failure to appoint new ministers (due to the opposition of his coalition partners, the Green Party).
Cowen said that this would give the party a chance to elect a new leader to contest the election while he focused on getting the finance bill through the Dáil. The decision was taken after consulting his family, and on his own political judgment - it seems that he didn't consult senior ministers (though he did say that he spoke to ministers, but there was no question of his leadership). He told the leader of the Green Party, John Gormley, "as a matter of courtesy" about the decision 15-20 minutes before the press conference. While his resignation is a party matter, it will affect how the government (and coalition) is perceived. I wonder if this is tit-for-tat after the Greens forced an early election on Fianna Fáil and refused to permit a reshuffle of the cabinet.
The big question now, is will this arrangement work? The election will take place on March 11th: is this enough time for Fianna Fáil to elect a new leader, and present itself as renewed? In many ways it doesn't matter, because the electorate has largely made up its mind, but it doesn't give Cowen's successor much time to even try to do anything about it. The successor will also be tainted by the election defeat, even if only as someone slightly responsible. In terms of successors, the timing of the decision should be good news for Micheál Martin, the former foreign minister who resigned to openly vote against Cowen in the motion of confidence. Other possible leaders, Hanafin and (Brian) Lenihan, repectively voted against but didn't resign, and publically supported Cowen while encouraging others to vote against him, which was very damaging for both of them. So Martin's party political capital will have less time to decline, while other challengers have a tough job in rebuilding their political credibility.
And how easy will it be for Fianna Fáil to campaign with a party leader who isn't Taoiseach - when in Ireland it's an unwritten rule that the party leader of the biggest party in government becomes Taoiseach? Micheál Martin had proposed the idea that the party leader would be different from the Taoiseach if Cowen had been ousted (which makes a certain amount of sense: why change Taoiseach so close to the election?), but critics rightly pointed out that it would be hard, if not nigh-on impossible, for Fianna Fáil to sell the idea that Cowen was too bad a leader to lead the party, but it's ok for him to lead the country for a while longer. To a certain extent Cowen's resignation takes some of the contradictions out of this. By resigning, the choice is Cowen's own, and the arrangement can be portrayed as purely practical. But on the other hand, it will still be a Fianna Fáil party that has time and again refused to topple Cowen that will go before the electorate.
Fianna Fáil: the party who needed Cowen to go so badly that even he knew it, but which couldn't do it itself.