Cowen gets crown
BRIAN Cowen will become Fianna Fail leader and the country's 12th Taoiseach when Bertie Ahern steps down from both posts.
The last remaining obstacle standing in Mr Cowen's way was removed last night when Transport Minister Noel Dempsey confirmed he would not mount a challenge for the post.
Attention will now turn to the fight for the plum jobs in the new administration -- such as replacement Tanaiste and Finance Minister -- as senior ministers try to curry favour with the new leader.
Mr Cowen is still expected to formally announce his candidacy today, but his elevation is now assured.
A poll by the Irish Independent of the party's 46 backbenchers last night revealed that 38 are steadfastly behind the Offaly TD.
Mr Dempsey had been waiting for the party to formally announce details of the election before confirming he would not be running.
"Now that procedures for the selection of a successor to Bertie Ahern have been agreed Minister Dempsey is happy to confirm his full support for Brian Cowen," a spokesperson said.
Mr Dempsey was the last senior minister to bow out of contention for the leadership just 24 hours after Bertie Ahern announced he would quit on May 6.
Throughout yesterday, a line of senior ministers threw their support behind Mr Cowen and bowed out of contention for the leadership.
Each insisted the current Finance Minister was the best man to carry on the work of the Fianna Fail-led coalition.
On Wednesday, a special meeting of the parliamentary party will be held at which all Fianna Fail TDs will be asked to vote in a secret ballot.
However, if there is only one nomination by 2pm this Saturday, a ballot will not be necessary.
Government Chief Whip Tom Kitt said it was "quite clear" Mr Cowen will be proposed and seconded as a candidate today or tomorrow.
The new Taoiseach will then be elected in the Dail on Wednesday, May 7, after Mr Ahern travels to Aras an Uachtaran to tender his resignation to the President on either the evening of May 6 or the morning of May 7.
The focus has now turned to who will replace Mr Cowen as Tanaiste and Finance Minister, the two posts he held under Mr Ahern. It remains unclear whether the new leader will appoint a separate person to each post in his reshuffle.
Education Minister Mary Hanafin became the first to signal her interest in the Number Two job after stating it was not "my time" for the job of Taoiseach.
Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern, who was annoyed last year at the Taoiseach's decision to name Mr Cowen as his "natural successor", was one of the last of the senior ministers to rule out a bid for the top job.
However, in carefully choosing his words, Mr Ahern said he had decided not to contest the leadership in the "near future" because it was not for him "at this time".
The possibility of any leadership contest lessened sharply early yesterday morning when Enterprise Minister Micheal Martin firmly ruled himself out of the running.
Long perceived as one of the heavyweight contenders for the job of Taoiseach, Mr Martin said he would be offering 100pc support to Mr Cowen.
"I think there's a clear successor to Bertie Ahern and I certainly won't be contesting the election. "It's my view that Brian Cowen will be an excellent leader of the party. He will enjoy my support," he said.
According to the rules of the Fianna Fail party, only TDs will be allowed vote for their new leader, to the exclusion of senators, MEPs and councillors.
Last night, questions abounded as to whether the Taoiseach would in fact nominate Mr Cowen for the position. Mr Kitt said he was unaware of who would formally propose and second the Tanaiste's nomination. "If there is another member who is anxious to put their name forward, then he or she should be encouraged to do so," he added.
Until May 7, Mr Ahern will still be in charge of running the country, while the new leader will be working under the title of 'leader-elect'.
Among the ministers who pledged their support for Mr Cowen yesterday were Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin, Dermot Ahern, Martin Cullen, Willie O'Dea, Mary Coughlan, Seamus Brennan and Eamon O Cuiv, and finally, Mr Dempsey.
Justice Minister Brian Lenihan, who is heavily tipped to become Tanaiste, is believed to be supporting Mr Cowen. He has yet to formally declare this support but his brother, junior minister Conor Lenihan, and aunt, Mary O'Rourke, have already publicly endorsed Mr Cowen and the minister also called for a unanimous decision to be made.