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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 3, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    Cowen oration better value than Palin-Biden debate

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    RTE very kindly repeated the vice-presidential debate at 8.30 this morning for the benefit of Irish political nerds who still like to get a  night’s sleep. A friend of  mine in the US texted me earlier, just when the debate was over. That was about 3.30 a.m. Irish time. “What do  you think? Who won?” my friend asked.

    I didn’t reply at that stage. Didn’t want to get my brain working. Anyway, I hadn’t seen it. Dutifully at 8.30 Irish I switched on RTE. But even the most obsessive political anoraks must have found it rather dull stuff.

    The spin-doctors and image-masseurs have got to Sarah Palin. Dressed in black, new glasses, sombre demeanour: it was obvious they had been at work. Whether she won or not depends on your point of view: there are few  neutrals at this stage. But she didn’t screw up or give any significant hostages to the other side, that I could see.

    Likewise Senator Biden had been well polished-up in advance of his TV appearance. He is such an old pro, he probably did not need much work. Biden is an impressive guy with a deep knowledge of political affairs although he probably flashed that Colgate smile one too many times. 

    It looked like a draw from where I sat … admittedly preparing breakfast and feeding the dog as I watched. The important thing for both is that they did not mess up, it wasn’t a disaster, there were slim satirical pickings for Saturday Night Live or the Daily Show. Palin had most to lose by giving a duff performance and she didn’t disgrace herself.

    But the whole thing paled by comparison with Brian Cowen’s bravura speech (http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/index.asp?locID=582&docID=4031)    at Trinity College last night, which unfortunately was not broadcast in full  on live television. I have seen the Offalyman at his oratorical worst — and that can be pretty bad. When he is not engaged in the subject, he speed-reads scripts in a bored, lacklustre fashion that does nobody any good, least of all  himself and his government.

    But when he’s on the ball and “seized of the matter”, as they say in UN resolutions, he’s probably the best in the current Dáil (arguably Eamon Gilmore is better, but the competition is very, very poor in the oratorical wasteland that is Leinster House today: more toast than Toastmasters.)

    A friend who is no great fan of Cowen’s usual style compared it with Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” moment in June 1940. I’m not sure I’d go that far although Cowen himself claimed we were at “a defining moment in our nation’s history”.

    He delivered the speech in the Dining Hall at Trinity College Dublin,  a highly-atmospheric location with its massive portraits of College worthies from the past. The location was not chosen by Cowen’s people — it just happened to be where North-South business people from Ibec and the CBI were holding a dinner.

     Nor was it deliberate, I’m sure, that the Taoiseach stood right underneath portraits of Henry Grattan and Henry Flood. I don’t think Cowen even noticed the presence of the two 18th-century patriots at his right and left shoulder.

    However, those gentlemen would doubtless have approved of the move by the Government this week in one sense at least. It was an expression of economic sovereignty that Grattan’s Parliament would easily have understood.

    Cowen had a good, populist whack at the banks along the lines that the Government had stepped up to the plate, now it’s your turn. He was careful also to note in appreciative terms the support given by Fine Gael — not so much the “Tallaght” Strategy as the “Seven-o’clock-phone-call-from-Brian-Lenihan-you’ve-got-twenty-seconds-to-think-about-this” Strategy.

    Gaeilgeoirí like myself will be disappointed Cowen did not start off with his trademark  “blasht” of Irish, resounding through the hallowed halls of Trinity. We had to settle for the token “Gura maith agat (thank you)” at the end.

    His reference to “greed” in the financial sector will go down well with the punters and he was at pains to assure us that any costs from the guarantee scheme would be borne by the banks, not the taxpayer.

    Whatever its critics may say about this government, they cannot accuse it of being indecisive. The bringing-forward of the Budget to October 14th and this week’s  dramatic and potentially cataclysmic decision to underwrite the banks shows that the Cowenistas aren’t afraid to take executive action.

    But that’s not the same as agreeing it is going to work. The Government has, in effect, bet the State against the market. Can our little Tricolour, fluttering in the October breeze over Leinster House, withstand the storms and the buffettings of naked and unfettered capitalism?

    Should the Government have emulated the British and nationalised troubled financial institutions or should they have taken a share in the banks as the Swedes did? Or should they have let a bank or two go to the wall? The town is swirling with rumours about a senior banking executive literally with a gun to his head and there are unsubstantiated stories that one or more of the Big Ones was about to go down. Better not to continue or we’ll end up in the soup like Joe Duffy  . . .

    This week must be what it felt like at the outbreak of the second World War, a time of wolves and tigers when Ireland stood alone, a small, truncated outpost on the edge of a savagely-warring continent.

    One would have liked to see more time given to the debate, although the example of the US Congress was not necessarily encouraging. There is a strong case to be made for swift action where the market and all those greedy, or at least self-interested, speculators are involved.

    The cross-party alliance with Fine Gael was reminiscent of similar solidarity in the “Emergency” years of 1939-45. Labour expressed dissent but, if the vote was really tight, the party might well have had to reconsider. Sinn Féin’s decision to back the legislation was highly-significant and will make the party a more palatable coalition partner if and when the issue arises in the future.

     For once, members of the Oireachtas were able to show a bit of dedication, self-sacrifice and patriotism. There is huge cynicism among the public about the gravy-train that many politicians are now riding (Pat Rabbitte spoke well about this on last night’s Vincent Browne show on TV3) and it was reflected in the vote on the Lisbon Treaty.

    On a personal note, I felt a great sadness that my dear friend, Irish Times Economics Editor Paul Tansey was not there to witness these extraordinary events. As most of you know, I’m sure, he died suddenly last Sunday week. Paul would have been at the top of his game and the nation would be hanging on his every word. Like all good journalists, he would have been genuinely concerned about the fate of the country - but at the same time enjoying the drama and excitement to the full.

    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times

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