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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 20, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    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?

    • dealga says:

      I’m sure I won’t be the only one who picks up on this but ‘you have to say that he has had wretched luck.’

      Well they say you make your own luck and if that cliche is true about anyone, it’s true about Cowen.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I suspect the updated Irish version of The Swimmer would be, a Parkour version called The Deck Lander with the main character hopping from decking to decking across the outer-ring suburbs of Dublin from Bray to Balbriggan solely on timber.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      “The only hope of getting people to look beyond their own self-interest is to show there is an equality of pain.”


      Most people are looking beyond their self-interest unless you have a very cynical view of human nature. For most people I speak to, that are unhappy with the steps being taken at the moment, the issue for them is the need for fairness, not a desire for equality of pain. The outlook that there needs to be equality of pain is a crude notion of equality such as that expressed by the head of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC) who wanted public sector workers put on the dole to match those losing their jobs in the private sector. Or those who call for pay cuts in the public sector because others are losing their jobs. Fairness would involve taking into account the incomes of all of us in our society, and our respective abilities to pay, protection of the vulnerable, such as those on lower incomes, etc., as part of an overall package that was also about creating new jobs and new sources of revenue for our exchequer.


    • Major Alfonso says:

      The scale of the protest today was worrying to me. That was a protest against a cut (sorry “levy”!) that is in effect already wiped out by the new unemployment situation (based on foregoing tax and increased burden on the state). The cuts need to come thick and fast and taxes need to be raised, how big will the demonstrations be when cuts bite, and those already under the pension levy and income levy get their taxes hiked?

      I’m begining to suspect Cowen wants EU intervention! “The situation’s effed, may as well let it unwind, threaten the Euro zone and let the EU do the dirty work of restructuring the state (finances)”.

      Is that very cynical of me?

      Also The Swimmer is excellent, nice recommendation.

    • Deaglán says:

      Glad you liked The Swimmer. A parable that is very apt to today’s circumstances. The detail of the central character’s misfortunes is left deliberately vague. He is an educated man with a good knowledge of The Bible as evidenced by his quote from the Old Testament, “Thy belly is like a sheaf of wheat set with lilies.”

      I suggest in my latest blog, “The Time is Out of Joint” that there will now be talk of the IMF sorting out the situation.

    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      Major Alfonso,

      If you mean are you being cynical about Cowen’s motivation – I think you are being sceptical there. If you apply some of that scepticism to the thinking behind the Government’s approach you might be out on the next march yourself, like the sales representative and self-employed woman from my constituency that I met on yesterday’s march (and they weren’t spouses of public servants – they just don’t agree with the Government’s handling of the economic situation).

      I wonder do you know that some of those paying the public service pension levy include public sector workers that will not qualify for public service pensions, public sector workers earning €11,000 a year, public sector workers on low incomes whose families qualify for the social welfare payment FIS (Family Income Supplement). Fairness should be part of any Government response. A fairer approach would almost certainly have more support among the public.

      And cutbacks are not the only game in town. Look at what the US and Germany are doing for example. Left-wing economists such as the late John Galbraith have pointed out that the more you take from the lower-paid the less spending there is and the more jobs lost. The package of Barack Obama includes tax reform and measures to reduce the country’s deficit, but the main approach is that of economic stimulus by investing in key infrastructural projects that will boost the numbers of Americans in employment and hence the tax-take and the economy. The problem is that our Government only seems to listen to right-wing economists and those who had vested interests in the economic approach that got us into the mess we are in, in the first place.


    • Deaglán says:

      Just watching Professor Ronan Fanning on RTE’s Week in Politics warning about the danger of Leinster House coming to be seen as irrelevant. In a sense it already is, because so many decisions have been made in the Social Partnership process.
      Clearly there are issues that the Government needs to address in order to alleviate the burden on the weakest among those who are currently listed as being eligible to pay the pension levy. It will be interesting to see whether any such gestures are included in the legislation this week.
      Looking at the bigger picture, there does not seem to be any alternative strategy at the moment. The State needs money fast to meet its obligations. The Commission on Taxation is sitting and this morning Seán Ardagh of Fianna Fáil, speaking on Karen Coleman’s programme on Newstalk, was predicting a fairly major widening of the tax-base. That does seem to be the way we are headed.
      I remember discussing this with a colleague some time ago. I had just come back from Denmark and was very impressed with the fact that, although people paid very high taxes indeed, they got a great return in terms of pensions and health-care. My rather cynical colleague responded that if we brought in a similar regime in Ireland, the increased taxes would be frittered away and or misapplied.
      The Progressive Democrat influence on our political system ensured that personal taxes were significantly lowered and it is said that these lower tax rates actually resulted in a higher tax-take. But we don’t have Scandinavian-type social welfare and security, despite all this extra money in State coffers. This suggests that the problem is not resources, but rather our civic and political culture.

    • Gavin says:

      “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 is not unfortunate really though. It was inevitable. And the effect of FF’s relationship with developers and the banking system is coming home to roost. What is unfortunate is that I, and my future children, will have to pay for it.

    • Paul Moloney says:

      “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.”

      I may be misunderstanding you, but the use of the word “notion” seems to imply it’s the public’s perception that is at fault here. I’d suggest there’s nothing wrong it, since helping wide-boys and chancers cream it off is the raison d’être of the “cute hoor party” (Matthew Engel, FT). The public were just happy enough to ignore it as long as they assumed they were also doing well.


    • Deaglán says:


      You are right. The word “notion” is not the mot juste. Conviction would be better.

      Re the “cute hoor party”. Are you suggesting the species is confined to FF?

    • Paul Moloney says:

      “Re the “cute hoor party”. Are you suggesting the species is confined to FF?”

      Not confined to, no (every party will be rotten until donations are completely forbidden), but tolerated more than other parties. Contrast the way FG dealt with Michael Lowry (I’m not a FG supporter).


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