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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 14, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Lost in Translation

    Harry McGee

     I wish I had come up with that juicy little expression to describe the lather over the International Monetary Fund today.

    It sounds so obvious now. But I didn’t even think of it until RTE’s political hawkeye David McCullagh  produced it on the News at One with all the aplomb of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.

    The reference of course is to the movie which I discussed only two blogs ago – the one that depicted Tokyo and its youth and geek culture so accurately.

    Well today it perfectly described the mess that unfolded over the course of a long day. There was Brian Cowen in a Tokyo hotel making what he thought were general (and to be honest bland and innocuous) remarks about times being tough and hard at home. What looked like a mistake of interpretation of the remarks by RTE back home in Dublin was picked up by the wires. Suddenly Cowen’s remarks had been given an electric jolt and he was now seemingly saying that he was planning to call in the International Monetary Fund.

    And in its usual calm and collected manner, the markets responded by panicking, with the euro falling a cent against dollar. It took robust, and rapid-fire, response from the Government in the late afternoon to talk everybody in from the ledge.

    Let’s do a little anatomising on what happened. Yesterday my colleague Mark Hennessy reported that union leader Dan Murphy had written to his members warning that current public spending was unsustainable. Murphy attended a Government briefing for trade unions last Friday on the economic situation. On the back of that, Murphy wrote that the IMF could be called in to force “mass dismissals” of public sector workers.

    Cowen was attending an Enterprise Ireland event at the Conrad in Tokyo this morning. RTE’s David Davin Power asked him about Murphy’s letter and its reference to the IMF being called in if the Government did not take robust action. This is how Cowen responded:

    “Dan Murphy is a very experienced trade unionist and one that has been involved with social partnership since its inception.

    “I think what is simply being articulated on the basis of the briefings which have been provided is that the sharpness of the downturn is such that all of us need to get real about how we can move forward from here together in meeting this challenge.

    “I think he was referring to the previous experience in the 1980s when determined and corrective and timely action was the means which our prosperity was retained and sustained into the future.

    “I think that the comments that he has made are based on the evidence that was provided by Government in our discussions with trade unions.”

    Now it’s obvious that Cowen didn’t specifically refer to the IMF. But it’s also worth making some further observations. Firstly, Cowen didn’t demur from what Murphy had said. Secondly, the question contained a reference to the IMF. Thirdly, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to interpret Cowen’s reference saying Murphy’s views were based on briefings and evidence as referring back to the main thrust of the question which was about the IMF.

    My own understanding is that there was some cross purposes. Cowen’s understanding was that he was speaking generally i.e.not specifically responding to a question on the IMF. (It was later confirmed by everybody who attended the briefing that the |IMF was never mentioned).

    In addition, the question was asked at the end of a big Enterprise Ireland event attended by hundreds of people to announce new trade between the two countries. So a roving microphone was in operation that allowed one question per reporter and didn’t allow any follow-up.

    In a smaller setting, clarity would have immediately been provided to the next questioner who would have asked:

    “Are you saying that it was the Government who told Dan Murphy and the other unions that the IMF might be called in?”

    And he would have said: “No, that is not what I am saying…”

    It all provided a soupcon of excitement to what’s been a pretty low-key affair until now. The first few days have been wholly business oriented. My multifarious talents don’t extend to fluency in Japanese. But from what I can see from scanning the local media (in English) the visit has been the political equivalent of off-off-off Broadway here.

    That will change tomorrow when it becomes purely political. Cowen will deliver a major foreign policy address at Keio University. He will then meet the prime minister Taro Aso.

    They will have plenty to talk about. Aso has been in the position only since last September having replaced Yasuo Fukuda (without an election) after months of turmoil. Known as a straight talker and a populist, Aso’s political fortunes have bombed since then. He is now down at 27 per cent occupying that area of the political landscape that is known as the doghouse. There’s an election later this year and he’ll be very lucky to be PM after the summer.

    Cowen is the brightest shooting star Irish politics has had. He cast himself in the spirt of Sean Lemass but could find himself compared to Alan Dukes. A few times a year – usually when Fianna Fail or the Government’s back is to the wall – he is brilliant. But his public appearances are too downbeat, too drab, too long-winded.

    There’s a myth going around that he hates the press. Don’t believe it. They say that about all leaders. With Cowen it isn’t true, though he is very cautious and too prone to rely on  the comfort blanket of jargon and cliche to avoid adopting a strong position on a running political story.  And for all his star debating gongs from his schooldays in Roscrea, he can be a desperately poor public speaker.

    There was a lunch organised by Irish tourism the other day. The script was a bit maudlin. But it was clear that he had no hand in it. Granted, there was no continuity, as each paragraph was then spoken in Japanese by a translator. But the delivery contained as much passion as my delivery of the decade of the Sorrowful Mystery when my father forced us to go down on our knees and recite the Rosary when we were kids.

    Manachan is looking for an Obama. So is Noel Whelan (but in a president). But that’s not really where it’s at in Irish politics. The tourism speech was to a group of Japanese tour operators who prefer courtesy over passion. We don’t need fireworks. But sometimes you hanker for a bit more passion and energy from him, a bit less of that dour image he projects (though he is not really dour at all by nature).

    Oh, and there is Japan all this week. I’m just bowled over by Tokyo. Dan Sullivan was talking about electric city, the city of neon and flashing lights where all the gizmo and electronic geeks go. It was amazing but a bit too much of an overload. This city has so many obsessions, some of them weird. Speaking of which, a major sumo event begins in Tokyo on Sunday. Sadly, I’ll miss it. Those short sharp bursts of collosal energy would give inspiration to anybody, even belegaured political leaders


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