Brian Cowen and the Temple of Doom
Deaglán de Bréadún
I was sitting practically nose-to-nose with Brian Cowen today at a press conference. Need I tell you that he looked sombre? The place was Cardiff and the occasion a meeting of the British-Irish Council which is a body set up under the Good Friday Agreement to promote “East-West” relations between Ireland and the component parts of the United Kingdom. (I want to say “these islands” but someone will pick me up on it, I’m not sure why. Conor Cruise O’Brien used to call it “this archipelago”. The expression “British Isles” is a bit too colonial for me.)
The BIC has no powers, it is a talkshop set up as a sop to the unionists so they could swallow the North-South Ministerial Council. But I quite enjoy covering its “summit” meetings which take place about once a year. I attended the first one in London back in 1999 and, if memory serves, this was the first occasion that Tony Blair shook hands in public with a member of Sinn Féin. It was Bairbre de Brún and Blair looked away slightly as if he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing politically.
There are eight governments or administrations in the BIC, including, rather exotically, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. It gives one a different “take” on the UK. Alex Salmond, for example, who heads the Scottish devolved administration in Scotland, is a very impressive speaker and a strong presence among any group of politicians.
We in Ireland are too London-focused in our relations with the British. We should have more interaction with our Celtic cousins in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Scots Gaelic and Irish are practically identical, from what I can make out.
Anyway, back to Cowen. He is a man under pressure (although he still managed a laugh or two at the press conference). Not only has the economy gone into a tailspin but the banking system is extremely wobbly. Then this carry-on at Anglo-Irish Bank lands in his lap. The press conference was in the morning with two major banking reports expected later in the day.
The rumour factory is busy at its work. Who are the unnamed ten and have they any connections with Fianna Fáil? Some of them at least are probably property developers and I said to a Democratic Unionist Party adviser over lunch after today’s press conference that a property developer who was not tied-in with Fianna Fáil was like a unionist politician with no links to the Orange Order. He responded that there are such people in the unionist political world and then we had a bit of a laugh when someone in the group asked in mock-horror tones if I was suggesting the “Orange” was corrupt? Of course not, I added hastily.
When you think of the celebrations after Cowen took over the leadership of his party and the job of Taoiseach, you have to say that he has had wretched luck. His only hope of survival is to impress upon the voters that he has done the right thing by the country.
That’s why the banking fiasco is so unfortunate. The only hope of getting people to look beyond their own self-interest is to show there is an equality of pain. But the notion that “wide-boys” and chancers are creaming it off the top is very widespread, especially now.
It will be interesting to see how many people turn out for tomorrow’s march. I would say a fairsized crowd but the next one could be even bigger. Is there anything Cowen can do? A national government has been suggested as a way out for the political class. He could try a general election but the polls suggest that would be a disaster. FF could change their leader but the same problems would remain.
The British-Irish Council discussed the state of the economy. Cowen gave them a briefing on the Irish situation and, from what I heard afterwards, he didn’t put a tooth in it or attempt to gloss over the problems.
I keep thinking of a satirical Robert Redford film from way back called The Candidate. It features the son of an outgoing politician who runs for the US Senate very reluctantly and only on the basis that his all-knowing worldly-wise adviser tells him he is certain to lose. Don’t read any more if you don’t want to know the plot . . . but he ends up winning and the closing line has him plaintively asking his adviser, “What do we do now?”
Incidentally, anyone looking for a film that sums up the Recession should get the DVD of Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer. You’ll have to go somewhere like Laser for it, because it first came out in 1968.
I watched it again recently. Based on a short story by John Cheever, it features a man (Lancaster) who decides to swim home to his commodious house in upstate New York via the swimming pools of his friends and neighbours. It’s a terrific study of a successful business or professional man’s disintegration and beautifully made. The story is probably being replicated in a good many places nowadays. Nothing like the old movies, eh Dan?