Ireland's New PM Offers Plain Talking

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Niall Carson / EPA

Taoiseach Brian Cowen speaks at a gala dinner as part of the United States Naval Institute investment conference at Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom.

Brian Cowen's first full day as Ireland's new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) this week found him on the hoof — lunching with his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, and donning a tux to schmooze U.S. investors at a grand Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Belfast. It was an elegant turn that belied Cowen's long-standing nickname: Biffo.

The name evokes a heavyweight political bruiser just by its sound, but Biffo is also an acronym: it stands for Big Ignorant F*** From Offaly, the county in the Irish midlands where Cowen was born and which he still represents in the country's parliament. The moniker isn't meant to suggest the new Irish Prime Minister is stupid, because his allies and enemies know that he isn't. Ignorant is rather taken in an Irish sense of the word: ill-mannered, rough, in your face.

But with a turn of dry wit that undermines that image, Mr Cowen insists that he's only ever understood the name to stand for Big Intelligent Fella From Offaly. He's now got the chance to prove his version is right.

The 48-year-old had long been considered a prospective Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shuck), but was suddenly catapulted into office by the surprise resignation of Bertie Ahern, his colleague in the centrist Fianna Fail party. Ahern, the longest serving Irish premier of modern times, announced his resignation last month to concentrate on defending himself before a tribunal investigating payments to politicians.

Cowen has the credentials for high office. A lawyer by trade, he served in five Cabinet posts, has a reputation for razor-sharp intelligence and is widely credited within Fianna Fail for having been the chief architect of the crafty election campaign that surprised pundits and gave Ahern his third successive term last year.

Yet the transition may not be an easy one. Cowen takes charge in anxious economic times, and like Brown, he could suffer from being rather less charismatic than his predecessor. Whereas Ahern loved working the crowds, Cowen has built his reputation as a backroom politician. "He likes a smoke, which you don't see from a lot of politicians these days," says a government official who used to work for him. "And he's not the sort of politician who can't walk past a camera. He's almost indifferent to the media. It'll be interesting to see if anyone tries to shape his image."

Instead of a makeover, Cowen is more likely to offer Ireland the kind of matter-of-fact — some would say blunt — talk that has made him the first Irish premier to admit smoking marijuana, back when he was a student in the late '70s. "Unlike President Clinton, I did inhale," he said.

A committed European, Cowen said his first important task is to ensure that Irish voters ratify the European Union's Lisbon treaty by referendum next month. The treaty, meant to streamline the Union's structures, has to be approved by all 27 E.U. member states to come into force; Ireland is currently the only one among them that will do it by popular rather than parliamentary vote. Polls suggest that the Irish will do so, and with Cowen now leading the campaign, opponents of the treaty may want to brace themselves for a bruising.