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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 25, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    How much do we really know?

    Harry McGee

    Brian Cowen’s interview with Gerald Barry on This Week yesterday was one of his better ones. (You can listen to the full interview here.)

    He warmed up towards the end and you could hear from his voice that he was speaking in real English and probably gesticulating his arms, and not just coming out the civil servant nonsense lingo.

    There was one gobblygedook clanger in the course of the interview, he said:

    “The cost to the economy would have been far greater if the counterfactual were allowed to develop.”

    That was really sore on the ears.

    So is Brian Cowen a poor Taoiseach or just a poor communicator as Taoiseach? Or is the counterfactual the case?

    Well, there are those who are close to him that say that he has done much better in the job than the media has given him credit for.

    They argue that the media concentrates unduly on the communications function and the optics. They judge the entier performance only on how well he does in spontaneous interviews known as doorsteps or on television or on radio.

    And he doesn’t do well in any of those unless he is roused into oratorial mode (about once a year) or he’s getting aggressive (conventional wisdom is that it’s not good for a leader to be trading insults and sledging).

    According to them, and Batt O’Keeffe would be the strongest proponent of this theory, Cowen’s real strengths come to the fore behind closed doors and among his Cabinet colleagues.

    That’s all very well. But all we can judge on is what we witness and what we are told.

    What we do know about Cowen

    On the plus side.

    1. He is the most hands-on Taoiseach for a generation, with his finger in every pie.

    2. Unlike Bertie, he chairs and takes an active part in all the Cabinet sub-committees

    3. He is a good delegator and he is also demanding.

    4. His breadth of knowledge is very impressive

    5. He is bright and sharp, has a good grasp of all the big issues, including the economy.

    On the downside

    1. He goes native in every Department he goes into, appropriating the language. Within weeks he talks like a senior mandarin from Foreign Affairs or Finance, or whereever he has gone.

    2. Unfortunately, he also appropriate the modus operandi. Cautious, careful, don’t rock the boat.

    3. He has had an image in the past for being decisive but it has never been backed up by decisive decisions. He is, like Bertie, a waverer.

    4. Has he blinked in the face of crisis? There’s anecdotal evidence that he may have been willing to backslide, during the tense negotiations with unions in the run-up to Christmas.

    I was talking to a very experienced colleague yesterday who remarked that Cowen seems in much better form than he was last year. Even though he was the heir apparent and knew the top jop was his for the asking, this colleague believes that Cowen had never thought it through until he got it.

    Cowen could be a minister and also enjoy a social life. But being Taoiseach meant ditching the entirety of the other life. It took him a time to reconcile himself to that reality. It wasn’t helped by the unrelenting nature of the crisis that he inherited. According to my wise friend, that got to him, made him ask himself did he want the job or not. It reached a nadir during the middle part of last year. And his performance then was just woeful.

    A few of the Toaiseach’s colleagues have said that he is much sparkier of late. That may coincide with the end of the period of soul-searching. Time will tell. Cowen’s work- appetite and energy levels fluctuate a little, unlike his predecessor who was always ‘on’.

    Politically, I can’t see him pulling any irons out of the fire for the next Election.

    I think that he will look more towards posterity, in terms of history judging him as a good or bad Taoiseach. The copybook is already blotted but he has two and a half years – and that’s more than enough to recover, or sustain, a political reputation.

    • dealga says:

      It’s a pity that image matters so much, but it does. And it clearly matters to a lot of people that he shows no sign of ever accepting that he made some terrible mistakes as Finance Minister, or no sign of ever being contrite.

      In that, almost cliched, grief cycle the Irish people have mostly moved on from shock and denial and are now spread out across the anger, bargaining and depression stages. If he can bring the country to acceptance before the next election history will probably be kind to him.

    • robespierre says:

      On the plus side Harry, Bertie Ahern will likely go down as the best and the worst Taoiseach in the history of the state.

      His first term was pretty impressive on almost every count, his second beyond dreadful.

      The second term was Cowen’s legacy and to some extent he will benefit by being seen as somebody handed a toxic legacy – perhaps like Jim Callaghan in the 1970′s.

      However, like Callaghan, Cowen played a central role in the eventual development of the malaise and no historian will judge his performance as Taoiseach without reflecting on the impact he himself had on himself from the Finance portfolio.

      My own personal view is that FF deserve very little credit for the three goals achieved before Christmas, they had to happen. The budget was not as severe as it could have and should have been. They are still pulling punches and being nakedly political in the choices they are making.

      I think we will be unfortunate if we ever witness a worse Taoiseach. It seems he has coincided his arrival with our darkest hour.

    • Harry says:

      Points well made. One of the things that was most interesting about Frank Dunlop’s memoirs about his time as Government press secretary in the 1970s was how much ‘out of the loop’ he was. He was fed only tidbits from the Cabinet. And you know what? It hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. The ‘rún daingean’ mentality has survived.

    • Paul9162 says:

      what a waste of article space for a washed out politician, a waffler not a waiverer, and a treacherous man who should not be in power having failed those who have lost jobs and have emigrated. They have even made it more difficult for anyone returning to get welfare payments. With friends in power like these who needs enemies.

    • Paul9162 says:

      what is this ? a FF blogsite ?

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      On the plus side.

      1. He is the most hands-on Taoiseach for a generation, with his finger in every pie. – a problem that Gordon Brown shares apparently. Do people still remember that we have a parliamentary democracy and not a presidential system? My view is that Cowen has let his ministers get on with things a bit more, whereas Bertie had a tendency to pre-empt them at times with announcements that caught them on the hop.

      2. Unlike Bertie, he chairs and takes an active part in all the Cabinet sub-committees – I would rate that as a good thing, it won’t won over the public but it is something that a Taoiseach should do.

      3. He is a good delegator and he is also demanding. – Oddly enough a strength of Enda Kenny’s that gets minimal coverage in the press.

      4. His breadth of knowledge is very impressive – “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

      5. He is bright and sharp, has a good grasp of all the big issues, including the economy. – I would parse that slightly in that he has a good ability to grasp of the current state of the big issues but I’ve yet to see any evidence in any of his roles as minister that he sees the trends in those issues or the medium/long term consequences of his actions or those of others on them.

      On the downside

      1. He goes native in every Department he goes into, appropriating the language. Within weeks he talks like a senior mandarin from Foreign Affairs or Finance, or whereever he has gone. –

      2. Unfortunately, he also appropriate the modus operandi. Cautious, careful, don’t rock the boat. – his tenure in Health gets overlooked these days but his mentality that it was Angola set the tone for subsequent ministers that their goal was to ensure they thought it best not to disturb those landmines and so they sat on their hands for the most part.

      3. He has had an image in the past for being decisive but it has never been backed up by decisive decisions. He is, like Bertie, a waverer. – I wonder what it is that sets these guys up to view a decision as some sort of life long companion, that they should never be parted by from by making it.

      4. Has he blinked in the face of crisis? There’s anecdotal evidence that he may have been willing to backslide, during the tense negotiations with unions in the run-up to Christmas. – again this goes back to his lack of longer term vision. I suspect that Brian Cowen like many in Irish politics wants the country to be
      ‘better’ but has light concrete idea of what ‘better’ is or looks like. And it’s not enough to simply dream of the city on the hall, you’ve got to get busy working out how to make bricks and what size they need to be and where will live where and what they will do and the all the other messiness that comes with make things a reality. It seems disappointing some people in the short term and in Irish politics you can’t disappoint people in the short term even if it is a means to longer term goals that people support.

    • Harry says:

      To Dan: no quibbles with that analysis. To Paul. ?

    • Ray D says:

      What does civil service nonsense lingo mean. I am a retired civil servant but I can say that any attempt to tell the bare unfettered facts would not be acceptable at any stage to my political masters and that nonsense lingo (or any other nonsense) was foisted on civil servants by their political masters. It is a fact that, where scripts were provided by civil servants, these were drafted as their political nmasters required. Politicians invented the need for nonsense lingo – not civil servants.

    • tony says:

      I am not in favour of personalising politics. The present Taoiseach was a prominent member of a government that has bankrupted the country. It does not stop there. Recently we were given an inquiry into the bankrupt banks behind closed doors. We also have a proposal to charge for water in a country in which large areas are subject to flooding. This is the result of the incompetence and lack of action of one of the best paid governments in the world which has been in power for twelve years on the trot.

      During that time its members failed to prioritise the maintenance of a functioning banking system or the public water supply infrastructure. They did, however, among other things, prioritise the spending of a billion on decentralisation, fifty million on evoting machines and millions on spin doctors.

      Under Brian Cowen as Taoiseach they are now spending millions of taxpayer’s money scapegoating all and sundry in order to cover up their own faults and failings.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      There is no ‘upside’ to Cowen – he is the second worst Taoiseach we have ever had. It’s all bad.

      I’d say he is as bad as Brown here but at least Brown has a policy belief system. Cowen can’t even claim that much.

      If Ireland is to get the proper government and reform it needs then the media needs to play its role.

      That means ending the back slapping pals routine within Leinster House and those there to hold them to account. The relationship is so blurred it’s a threat to proper democracy.

      Thankfully the public seem to be slowly getting it. All the guff about Enda Kenny not connecting when all the time the party has more support than he does – the point being missed on purpose of course is that Enda Kenny isn’t stopping anyone vote for Fine Gael. People vote for FG cos they know its a team not a one man band.

      If Cowen really is an intelligent educated man then is it really too much to expect him to rise above the backwoodsman attitude to his party and do the right thing – each time he has had the choice he always picks the backwoodsman option – his complete inability to make a decision on a banking inquiry outside the prism of protecting Fianna Fáil’s golden circle at all costs.

      He is intellectually incapable of doing what needs to be done.

    • PEIG RICHARDS says:

      THE PARTY IS A POOR PARTY, HENCE POOR LEADERS, SINCE HAUGHEY, AHERN & NOW COWEN ALL POOR LEADERS, OVER THE LAST 30 YEARS THE VOTERS OF IRELAND HAVE INFLICTED A TERRIBLE LOSS ON THE COUNTRY, THE PD’S AND THE GREEN’S INCLUDED, ME FIRST, NOT COUNTRY FIRST.


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