Bertie Ahern has stepped down as prime minister of Ireland, to be replaced by current Finance Minister Brian Cowen. Later this week, his Northern Ireland counterpart, Ian Paisley, resigns as first minister of Northern Ireland, to be replaced by his finance minister and long-time deputy, Peter Robinson.
The quasi-simultaneous handovers raise questions about the future of the north-south relationship, and occur when both sides face considerable economic challenges.
Ahern's resignation as prime minister--after stepping down as leader of his Fianna Fail party in April--comes at a time of increasing personal unpopularity arising from allegations concerning his private finances. These have been referred to the Mahon Tribunal, Ireland's long-running judicial inquiry, which was set up in 1997 to investigate allegations of corrupt payments relating to planning matters.
Its judgment is not expected until at least 2009. Fianna Fail, the senior partner in the governing coalition, retains a high level of support in opinion polls; it forced Ahern's departure in order to contain the politically damaging fallout expected to follow the tribunal's report. His successor, Cowen, is perceived as technocratic, solid and a safe pair of hands.