Although he will remain as Taoiseach until his successor is elected, the curtain will effectively fall on Mr Cowen’s political career today when he will trigger the dissolution of the Dáil to allow for the election.
His decision was not a surprise, following the manner in which his leadership of Fianna Fáil was prematurely ended and the lifetime of his government dramatically shortened following a botched reshuffle.
He announced his decision in an interview last night with his local radio station, Midland 103FM, saying: “The issue for me is what direction I want to take in my life now.”
He said it was also about recognising that he had been Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader in arguably the “most difficult period since the foundation of the state”: “I’ve led the Government, motivated day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out for the purpose of stabilising our economy.”
Mr Cowen confirmed he had spoken with his successor, Micheál Martin, but said the new FF leader had not urged him to retire.
“Everyone in the Fianna Fáil party would like to see me stand again,” Mr Cowen said, before criticising media efforts to suggest there was a divide between him and Mr Martin.
In a subsequent statement, Mr Cowen thanked his constituency colleagues and supporters in Laois-Offaly for understanding and respecting his decision.
There is still much affection for Mr Cowen in Laois-Offaly, despite his unpopularity nationwide, and his substantial vote would have represented FF’s only chance of retaining its three seats in the constituency.
Mr Cowen’s brother Barry, a councillor, may now be selected to run alongside the other candidates in a bid to soak up some of the Taoiseach’s support.
But while support remains in his constituency, Mr Cowen is set to depart office with the lowest approval ratings on record.
In a passage in Irish in his statement last night, he acknowledged the difficulties people were experiencing.
He first said it was a source of pride to him that Ireland had seen major progress since he was first elected to the Dáil in 1984. He then said it was a source of regret what the public had endured in recent years as a result of the “international economic crisis”.
Mr Cowen’s announcement came a few hours after Mr Martin named his frontbench, retaining all of the ministers still in cabinet and bringing back Willie O’Dea, who had been forced to resign last year.
Mr Martin defended his decision to retain Finance Minister Brian Lenihan as party finance spokesman, as the Central Bank delivered further bleak news saying the economy would not grow as quickly as had been previously forecast.
Mr Martin named outgoing TD and former Defence Minister Tony Killeen as national director of elections for the party’s campaign. The election committee also includes PJ Mara as chairman, Sean Dorgan and Pat McParland.