BRIAN COWEN used his first day as taoiseach to deliver a dramatic cabinet shake-up that installed his closest allies in key posts.
Brian Lenihan was promoted to the crucial role of finance minister while Mary Coughlan became Tánaiste. However, the Taoiseach drew heavy opposition fire for keeping embattled Health Minister Mary Harney in her post.
After being elected the state’s 12th head of government by the Dáil in an 88-76 split, Mr Cowen’s voice broke with emotion as he remembered his father Ber, who he said had imbued in him the belief that “politics is above all else about public service”.
The Taoiseach was greeted with jubilant scenes as supporters from his native county boisterously sang The Offaly Rover as they mobbed his car as it left Leinster House to take him to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive his seal of office.
His wife Mary, their two daughters and other family members made the journey to meet President McAleese with him at his request.
After Mr Cowen was named taoiseach in the Dáil he shook Bertie Ahern’s hand on the steps of the chamber before the former head of government slipped quietly to a seat on the back benches.
Mr Cowen told TDs his No 1 priority was getting the Lisbon treaty passed at next month’s referendum and also warned the economy was “in transition” to lower levels of growth.
He also pledged reform of public services as he acknowledged health provision needed special attention.
“Nowhere is the need for a new approach more acute than in the health service. Despite the vast sums of money invested in the provision of health services over the last decade we continue to face massive challenges,” he told the Dáil.
Mr Lenihan and Ms Coughlan signed Mr Cowen’s nomination papers for the post of Fianna Fáil leader and are known to be personally and politically close to him.
The other big surprise in the cabinet change-around saw Education Minister Mary Hanafin demoted to social and family affairs as her old portfolio was handed to newcomer Batt O’Keeffe.
Micheál Martin left enterprise to replace Dermot Ahern at foreign affairs after he was moved to the justice role.
In all, eight of the 14 government departments changed hands with Brendan Smith entering the cabinet at agriculture.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore dismissed the shake-up as a “recycled Fianna Fáil single-party government” after he savaged the Greens for their “capitulation” within the coalition.
“The captain’s armband has been changed, there are a few substitutions and some position switches, but this is essentially the same government that has been in office for the last 11 years,” he said.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the Taoiseach was engaged in “deception”, pretending he could deliver a programme for government when the worsening economic situation had severely eaten into the resources available.
“The Fianna Fáil slogan ‘A lot done — a lot more to do’ has become a sick reminder of riches squandered and hopes dashed,” he said.
Mr Cowen’s first international meeting as taoiseach will be with British prime minister Gordon Brown at a Belfast conference to stimulate investment in the north today.
The new cabinet held their first meeting after receiving their seals of office from the president and Mr Cowen’s first statement in the top job was to congratulate new Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney.
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