Cowen is exposed to politics at a young age. His grandfather was a councillor in the Fianna Fáil party, and his father, Bernard Cowen, held a seat in Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament). He is an exemplary debater in school and often speaks at his father’s election rallies. He studies at University College Dublin and at the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland, where he is trained as a solicitor. His father’s death in 1984 prompts a by-election for the seat he had held in the Dáil. At the age of 24, he captures the seat, becoming one of the youngest members ever to sit in the Dáil.
Cowen’s political mentor is Albert Reynolds, who becomes Taoiseach in 1992 when Fianna Fáil is in a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats. He is an outspoken critic of the coalition, famously stating about the Progressive Democrats, “When in doubt, leave them out!” He serves as Minister for Labour (1992–93), and in 1993, after the breakup of the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government, he helps to negotiate the short-lived coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. He then serves as Minister for Transport, Energy, and Communications (1993–94), leaving office after Fianna Fáil is forced into opposition by the formation of a Fine Gael–Labour–Democratic Left coalition.
During Fianna Fáil’s years out of government, Cowen serves successively as opposition Spokesperson for Agriculture, Food, and Forestry (1994–97) and Spokesperson for Health (1997). Following elections in 1997, Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern forms a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats, and the party once again returns to power. Cowen serves as Minister for Health and Children (1997–2000), Minister for Foreign Affairs (2000–04), and Minister for Finance (2004–08). In June 2007 he was appointed Tánaiste.
Cowen is known for his sharp tongue and sometimes rough-hewn manner, but he is also recognized for his fierce intelligence, wit, and jovial demeanour. A combative politician and loyal party member, he is for many years seen as an obvious successor to Ahern. In April 2008, amid an investigation into possible past financial misconduct, Ahern announces that he will resign as Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fáil the following month. Cowen, who had remained supportive of Ahern throughout, is elected Leader of Fianna Fáil in April 2008. He becomes Taoiseach the following month and is faced with leading the country amid the global financial crisis that creates Ireland’s worst economy since the 1930s.
Cowen’s government oversees the bailout of Ireland’s banking system, which had been thrown into crisis by the collapse of the housing market, but the rescue comes at the cost of a skyrocketing deficit. As the country’s economic difficulties deepen, he seeks a cure that he hopes would obviate the need of foreign intervention, proposing an increase in income taxes and cuts in services. In November 2010, however, as concern for Ireland’s financial stability grows among its eurozone partners, he agrees to accept a bailout of more than $100 million from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. There is concern in Ireland that one condition for foreign aid might be an increase in Ireland’s comparatively low corporate taxes. The Green Party, Fianna Fáil’s junior partner in the governing coalition, responds to the situation by calling for early elections.
In mid-January 2011 Cowen’s leadership of Fianna Fáil is challenged by Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin, partly in response to rumours that had swirled of a golf course meeting that had taken place between the Taoiseach and the former head of the Anglo Irish Bank before the government’s bailout of the Irish banking industry. He survives a leadership vote, but about one-third of the party’s parliamentary bloc votes against him. In a rapid succession of events that occur over the course of a few days, an unsuccessful reshuffle of the cabinet follows the resignation of six cabinet ministers, after which Cowen calls for an election to be held on March 11 and then announces that he will step down as party leader but continue as caretaker Taoiseach until the election. The Green Party then withdraws from the ruling coalition, forcing an even earlier election. Waiting until the parliament passes a finance bill that is necessary to meet the conditions of an International Monetary Fund–European Union loan but which imposes austerity measures that had proved very unpopular with much of the Irish public, he officially calls the election for February 25. Martin takes over as the Leader of Fianna Fáil, which suffers a crushing defeat in the election at the hands of Fine Gael.
In May 2014, Cowen becomes part of the board of Topaz Energy. He is appointed to the board of Beacon Hospital in February 2015. In July 2017, he is conferred with an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. During his 50-minute acceptance speech he criticises the EU for its behaviour towards Ireland during the financial crisis and expresses regret that so many jobs were lost during the recession. Following the conferring ceremony, the NUI faces considerable public criticism for deciding to make the award to Cowen. Former (and founding) President of the University of Limerick, Edward M. Walsh, announces that he will hand back his own honorary doctorate in protest, and does so on November 14, 2018.
On July 5, 2019, Cowen is admitted to Beacon Hospital after suffering a major brain hemorrhage. He is then transferred to St. Vincent’s University Hospital where he spends five months before transferring to a physical rehabilitation facility. As of late 2020, while he is still in hospital following a stroke the previous year, he has been making steady progress.