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Cowen dynasty gets a new lease of life as Brian passes torch to his brother Barry

UP until a year ago, the count centre in Tullamore Retail Park had been home to Byrnes' World of Toys.

Yesterday however, as the votes were counted in the vacant retail unit, there was little fun to be had for Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the Fianna Fail party he had professed to love so much, but had ultimately come to destroy through his stubborn refusal to let go of its leadership until it was too late.

Even before the people of Laois-Offaly had cast their votes, the fate of their once-favourite son's party had been written large on the front page of the 'Tullamore Tribune'.

'Saddest day for Offaly as EU/IMF bailout bites' the paper declared in its latest edition, published on the day before the General Election.

Proving that all politics -- even the global kind -- can be local, the story told of how Offaly's county and town councillors had been informed (along with every other local authority across Ireland) by the Department of the Environment of the requirement to submit monthly reports on their finances as part of the conditions of the €85bn bailout.

Late reporting of the figures could lead to a delay in Ireland drawing down funds from the EU and IMF, Offaly County Council's head of finance Declan Conlon warned, while Independent county councillor Johnny Butterfield wailed: "We have lost our sovereignty, we have lost our independence."

With that final nail driven into the proverbial coffin Brian Cowen fashioned (albeit unwittingly) for his county and country, the stage was set for Laois-Offaly -- a five-seat constituency in which Fianna Fail had won three seats in 2007 with 56 per cent of the vote and a massive 19,102 first preferences for Brian Cowen alone -- to be carved up by Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and Independent candidates.

Even before the outcome of the first count had been decided, all the talk was of Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan having topped the poll in spectacular fashion.

Mr Flanagan, for his part, was under no illusions in relation to huge task the incoming Fine Gael-led government would face.

Commenting on this to the Sunday Independent following his election, he said: "This constituency, like every other constituency, has seen its people suffer under what has been a disastrous Fianna Fail Government. There is hopelessness among the newcomers in the commuter belt.

"The new government will have no honeymoon. It's absolutely essential we set about the restoration of confidence and hope in the broken people of Laois-Offaly."

After Mr Flanagan, three of the remaining seats looked set to be accounted for by his Fine Gael party colleague, Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, Sinn Fein's Brian Stanley and the Taoiseach's brother, Barry.

That the Cowen dynasty had prevailed in the face of the Taoiseach's ignominious departure from political life surprised none of those who gathered in Tullamore count centre yesterday.

For while the Cowen name might well be toxic nationally, on a local level, there is an abiding affection and loyalty that stretches back to their late father 'Ber', whose seat Brian first won in 1984.

Helping Barry Cowen's cause in no small way, of course, was the canvassing his brother, the Taoiseach, had done for him throughout the campaign.

For as loyal as he ever was to Fianna Fail, when it came to this election, it was always going to be a case of blood being thicker than water for the Cowen brothers.

Asked by the Sunday Independent how he felt at the likely prospect of holding on to the Cowen seat in Laois-Offaly, Barry Cowen said: "We won't count our chickens, but I'm hopeful. I would be delighted to retain the seat. It's been a difficult campaign."

Asked if he would have stood a chance if his brother, the Taoiseach, had not been canvassing for him, he said: "I've been 18 years in local government. People know me and my work. I've had electoral success in the past.

"There's no doubt that Brian has left a huge legacy in the country, a very positive legacy, and a lot of people have expressed their appreciation for his contribution."

Asked if would accept that politically, the Cowen name was now toxic, given what had happened to the country, Mr Cowen said: "I don't accept that, not at all.

"History will prove that the decisions he made, no matter how unpopular they have been were necessary.

"And I think the new government will pursue a similar line over the next 18 months. You'll hardly be calling Enda Kenny toxic!"

Fianna Fail's other candidates, John Moloney and Sean Fleming, meanwhile were left at the mercy of the electoral wolves. And they knew it.

It was just after 7.30pm when the Taoiseach finally arrived in his State car for the announcement of the first count results. Looking relaxed, unburdened even, he was greeted warmly by friends and supporters.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he also rejected the suggestion that the Cowen name and brand nationally was now toxic.

And asked if he felt that he himself had suffered at the hands of the media since taking over as Taoiseach in 2008, Mr Cowen said: "That's for you guys to work out. It's not really for me to say.

"From my point of view, I did the job to the best of my ability. I dealt with the media in an upfront way on a daily basis."

He added: "I leave public office without any sense of bitterness or recrimination towards anybody.

"Whether in every case, people felt that there was a fair crack of the whip, that's for others to decide."

Sunday Independent