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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 24, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Is Cowen really straight out of Nob Nation?

    Harry McGee

    Mark Hennessy’s assessment on Cowen this morning is great stuff (here’s the link but don’t dare click it till you reach the end!)

    It raises a number of pertinent and searching questions about  Cowen’s style of leadership that have been touched on here and elsewhere. In the broadest sense they are:

    1. Does the Taiseach understand the full extent of the current problems?

    2. Is he capable of  devising real solutions to deal with them?

    3.  Is he capable of taking decisive – if highly unpopular- action?

    4. Can he communicate all of that to the population to instill a sense of confidence in the leadership.

    In other words, is he still The Man?

    The four questions above are not multiple choice – there is a mutuality on them. Each depends on each other. If one of the pillars (oh how I love the sensuous language of social partnership) is weak then all the rest is in danger of toppling.

    Cowen and Lenhan made a couple of mistakes along the way. But only a couple. Correct me if I’m wrong but is there any Government in western Europe that has yet brought in the full panoply of astringent medicine that will be required?

    |It has taken a few months for the full extent of the carnage to be absorbed by everybody. Look at what happened with the over 70s medical cards and education cut-backs last October. That was only, in relative terms, a shifting of the deckchairs exercise. Imagine if the Government had tried to steamroll €2 billion in cuts through back then.

    The quality of the response hasn’t been bad, certainly no worse than any other Government. We have seen Governments fire off whole cartridges of so-called silver bullets in quick succession over the past couple of  months, only to find that the ‘nuclear option’ has not made a whit of difference in terms of stimulating economies or revitalising banking activity.

    In a way, the delays in unveiling a plan the resulted in Cowen and Lenihan’s decision to stick with partnerhsip has  worked to their advantage. Nobody is under any illusion about the chill winds that now blow. Everybody will be far more pliant to taking the tough medicine.

    That said, the Government have had a pretty dire time of it in the past six months. On the pure political level, there have been mistakes of policy and presentation. But there have been strong decisions that people have conveniently forgot – the state guaranteee of deposits, the decision to recapitalise the banks, the early announcement of cuts – as well as the bloops like the medical cards and the pointless bringing forward of the budget and the very wooly economic framework plan.

    But the situation is fluid. Let’s explain that little euphemism. Nobody knows the hell what’s going on. One of the things that gives me a pain is listening to people (usually the economists who told us in 2007 that growth would slow down a little but that’s all).  What’s really worrying is the certitude. Can we really let Anglo Irish Bank go for example? Do we really know what consequences will flow from that?

    I had a neighbour who told me about his method of picking a horse in a race. He placed the racing pages on the hedge. He retreated to the other end of the garden. He took the garden fork in his hand.  Then he charged down the length of the lawn like Sir Lancelot. Wherever the prong pierced, that was his choice.

    Did the method work? Well, as well as the prognostications we are hearing from any of the other economic punters.

    The biggest failure the Government has been one of presentation.  The so-called troika or Cabinet of three of Cowen, Lenihan and Coughlan isn’t true but it’s been allowed get out there. Stories about rifts between Lenihan and Cowen over strategy are not true either but they have also been allowed propogate. Cowen’s own media appearances (and Dail contributions) have been bland, long-winded, jargon-filled and over-cautious. The collective impression is that he’s vague and non-commital, not energised and vacillating and maybe not fully in control of the situation.

    People on the street are asking: Does he know what he’s doing?

    Those who work with him saythat is anything but the case, that he working decisively and exhaustively behind the scenes. One of his staff also pointed out to me this week that the media is over-obsessed with the ‘communication’ (i.e. spinning part) of the brief and because he’s not out there doing a Jimmy Cagney song ‘n dance routine, we all think that he’s a goner. Said staffer pointed out similar media criticism of The Anorak in 2003 and 2004 and said he bounced back.

    But the crisis facing Bertie Ahern back then is incomparable with now. As Mark and Stephen Collins point out today, Cowen does not have time on his side. He has a couple of weeks to come up with a plan that will steer Ireland away from the dangerous rapids ahead. And that’s only the first challenge. The summer elections and the second rerun of Lisbon are both capable of downing him if results go disastrously wrong for the Government.

    The Nob Nation portrayal of him as a slobby drinker has (unfortunately) taken purchase. Oliver Callan’s impression of him has improved but the scripting of all the sketches I have heard is woeful. And crude. Real lowest common denominator stuff. To think that people are trying to compare it with real satire like Scrap Saturday or Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, both of which took no prisoners but did it with art and perception, not with end of the pier toilet humour.

    That’s where we are at now. Fianna Fail’s most colourful minister becomes its blandest leader. Second division humour becomes cutting-edge criticism.

    • dealga says:

      It’s nice to have somewhere to call it like it is with regards to Nob Nation – it is wojius dross.

      The talking-up it has gotten recently is further proof that we just can’t do satire in this country (Scrap Saturday was more miss than hit too). You’d have to be a nob nationalist to find it entertaining or clever.

      Sindo writer Declan Lynch plummeted like a bank stock in my estimation when he was all praise for Callan’s crude rubbish last Sunday.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      One of the reasons that over governments haven’t produced the “full panoply of astringent medicine” is that their problems are immediate.

      I’ve said it for a few years now but Cowen is to FF what Noonan was to FG, someone who was able to take full command of his brief, a tenacious competitor in tackling his opposition number and able to give the party stalwarts the real red meat stuff they love to devour. But and it’s a big but they are simply not able to reach outside the party. Not because they are bad people but because the skills required are very different. I keep using the line for our Irish version of electoral politics that the skills to get the job (getting elected as a public representative) aren’t the skills needed to do the job (being a legislator and leading people). The same is also potentially true of being party leader. It is worth comparing the process that FG went through to select Enda Kenny as opposed to that to select Brian Cowen.

      FG in the aftermath of a disaster of an election sat down and considered a number of candidates and made a choice in an election. Picking a leader isn’t about the present but about the future. If FG had focused on the present, they would have picked either Gay Mitchell or Richard Bruton because the immediate problem was the party’s collapse in Dublin. Yet the choice was Enda Kenny because they saw the long-term goal had to be to revive the organisation, the grassroots and that meant loads of going from town to town, gladhanding and listening. We need to avoid too early a rush to define ourselves by policy and needed candidates for ’04.

      FF in contrast went straight from Ahern to Cowen by acclamation. But why? Was he the most intelligent, the best loved, the most inventive, or was it just his singing? Was it based on his vision of the future or his record as minister? What was the ‘it’ that made him so compelling to them? Was it simply that he managed to get through the Dept of Health without setting off any landmines? Well that is actually easy to do in a minefield if you never take a step in any direction.

      Or was it that others who might have challenged and lost were of an opinion that things were about to get very sticky indeed economically and better to pass on this occasion because another chance might not be that long in coming? It is entirely possible that the Government might squeak through Lisbon II, but fall on the budget leading to another election. Was perhaps the main reason for moving the budget last year in fact to allow it to happen at the same time again this year which would allow time for an election campaign in its aftermath?

    • DesJay says:

      Whether other countries in Europe or anywhere else have solved their problems is beside the point. Full blown economic crises don’t just arrive on the wind one morning. Ireland didn’t have to get into this trouble. There’s been evidence for years that a housing bubble was growing (I wrote about it in 2005!). And bubbles do burst. Yet Brian Cowen went on encouraging housing development. And that was on top of the scandalous tax breaks FF had given while expanding government bodies and junior ministries and starving infrastructure. (Ireland made the pages of Newsweek magazine as a country where drinking water is not always safe.)

      And Dan Sullivan (above) is right: narrow apparatchiks don’t lead. The ability to reach out is called leadership, and FF have lost the plot while politicizing all aspects of government (George W. Bush could have taken lessons from FF.)

      A picture I saw recently said it all. Albert Reynolds at Shannon, waiting at the airplane steps for Yeltsin to emerge. Behind Albert, who else but Bertie and Brian? Will Brian be the first of the trio to leave office without the cloud we’ve come to expect?

    • Harry says:

      I think you are right, Dan, about Cowen’s communication flaw. FF insiders don’t think it’s a big deal for now but it will become one unless he gets his act together. Desjay, Lemass and Lynch could both have been described as appartchiks who nonetheless managed to leave their own imprints. I take the point about the bubble-expanding budgets (especially the inflationary one of 2006). In my defence, I was looking at now. Blogs (supposedly top-of-the-head stuff) sometimes don’t cover all the bases!
      Thanks for insightful comment. H.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Harry, one other thing that has slipped by until now is the increase central command aspect to the FF organisation. The WiP covered it somewhat last night. In my view it could hurt FF as much if not more if the stalwarts don’t come out and canvass for those who won through by interview than the party will be damaged by those who lost out running as independents.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Isn’t the problem that Brian Cowen personifies one of the many reasons why FF is unfit for office. He is simply incapable of making a decision based on the merits of the decision rather than how the decision suits those who bankroll FF and those who FF owes.

      Most people simply cannot conceive of Cowen and Co. sitting around a table and being able to not only come up with any solutions but to actualy have the guts to see them through. FF have never, ever freely done the right thing – each time they’ve walked away from a recession and left it to Fine Gael and Labour to clear up, while opposing everything for the sake of it. FF was forced to push through reforms in ’87-’89 under pressure from FG as we all know now why FF was so eager to retain power at any price.

      FF has become so internally rotten and corrupt that it’s seeping through its pores. Like a rotten piece of wood – it eventually the crumbles no matter how often you paint it, if you don’t treat the woodworm.

      Good riddance to it and it’s hard to feel too much pity for people in Ireland as the majority have voted for the likes of CJH then Bertie and now Cowen – they have to face up to what they have done no matter how painful it is and if this bit of pain gets that message through, then it’s worth it.

    • Sara says:

      Nice post. This post is providing very useful and important information.

    • Seamus Purcell says:

      Brian Cowen is not what Ireland Needs

      A good Leader gets nine out of ten decisions right

      A bad Leader gets nine out of ten decisions wrong

      Brian Cowen gets ten out of ten decisions wrong and then some

      Seamus Purcell

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