• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 5, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    Cowen off the cuff but still off the track

    Harry McGee

    Brian Cowen at a Fianna Fail Event last year. Pic Brian O’Brien

    It has been one of few moments that Brian Cowen has been on fire since becoming Taoiseach.

    Last year, he stood up at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner and, without warning, delivered a master class in rhetoric.  First of all let’s pile up the negatives. His lacklustre record as Taoiseach. His general inaccessibility. His mule-like refusal to come out and tell it like it is. His gruesome prose. His secretive instincts. Suspicion of the media.

    True, too, that the audience wasn’t exactly composed of ordinary citizens, rather the great and the good of business paying a fair whack per plate.

    Still, it was Cowen’s best 17 minutes as Taoiseach, delivering a speech that came from the heart rather than from p32, footnote 21 of Volume II of dry meaningless speeches for Ministers and Taoisigh.

    He did much the same last night, delivering an extemporore speech that lasted for 20 minutes. It was an Obama speech, general in nature without specific commitments. There were several themes that he obviously played around in his mind before delivering it. A strong and robust rejection of the notion that the  property collapse was the sole cause of the recession. An invocation to citizens to prepare to take tough medicine now allow a better Ireland for future generations. And an appeal to people’s patriotism, calling on them to think not of the state of being in 2010 but work towards a six-year goal, have a restored economy by the time of the Easter Rising centenerary and all its important symbolism.

    Unlike last year, there was a posse of reporters there last night. Here’s my new report on the speech. 

    The impact wasn’t the same as last year. There was much happening elsewhere. The DUP and Sinn Fein came to an agreement short of midnight.  The Central Bank was in the soup over spouses’ travel.  And the Finance Bill was also published.

    Nor did the speech reach the heady heights of last year. In fact, if you removed the 1916 trope, the sentiments were almost exactly the same, a general rallying call for citizens to take the pain now for later gain.

    Not too much wrong with that. Obama’s powers of oratorial delivery can sometimes disguise a lack of new content. Sometimes as a leader, you also need to repeat key points.

    And in that context, it was a relative success.


    1. Cowen needs to do it  far more often.

    2. He needs to chose audiences that are less select and elite than a chamber of commerce

    3. He needs to make himself more available to communicate what the government is doing without resorting to meaningless twaddle (he actually used the appalling word counterfactual in a recent interview).

    4.  He needs to be less suspicious. (Before the North intervened, he was due to travel to Cork today. There was a media ‘doorstep’ opportunity. However, it stated that he would accept questions issues pertaining to his trip only. That smacked of censorship and the controlling instincts of the current Government).

    • john says:

      Did he pay any attention to what caused the generalised disaster i.e. the howling moral vacuum at the heart of Irish politics in general, and Fianna Fail in particular? If he didn’t, then anything else he said means nothing. Not a damn thing.

    • kynos says:

      Because if that howling moral vacuum isn’t closed, anything else we do, whatever sacrifices we make, are just doomed to Hegel’s or was it Marx’s dictum about everything repeating first as tragedy then as farce. And personally I don’t feel like wasting my tax time or shoe-leather on such an insane neurotic insistence as to do the same thing time after time expecting a different result each time. There are other countries to live and work in. Other tax systems to support. Fix what you know is the real problem Mr Cowen. The fact that FF couldn’t do the decent thing not if it were to save a life.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      “A strong and robust rejection of the notion that the property collapse was the sole cause of the recession.” I’ve heard no one in politics suggest this, what people have said it that the property situation in Ireland is the reason we’ve been hit more than anyone else by the global downturn.

      Rehashing Rumsfeld’s expression the current global downturn was a known unknown, everyone knew there would be a down turn at some point but no one knew what would cause it. So it was known it would happen just not what it would be or what exactly would cause it.

      And when you know there might be danger ahead you take precautions. It’s like saving for a rainy day, it might not actually be rainy but snowy or windy or too sunny, the point is you prepare. And this Taoiseach didn’t do that, he ramped up public spending on the back of what was a short term boost in public finances due to construction. That is the short termism that he says now he is not a fan of.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      It is truely bonkers that any serious journalist should think the way a speech is delivered has a bearing on a government being a success.

      Cowen should be judged on his actions – did his speech save a single job? No. Did his speech stop any money being bled from the taxpayer by the ‘elite’ in the public sector? No. Did his speech hold anyone to account for the mess the country is now in? No, of course not.

      I’ll tell you the sort of speech I want to hear from Biffo. Firstly, that he has been to the Aras to disolve the Dáil – that’s a speech I’ll give him credit for making. I’d like a speech in which he scraps every single allowance and perk and expense paid to Oireachtas/Council/Town Commission/EU/Judiciary members and the closing of their pension scheme for past, present and future members to be replaced with a money purchase scheme based on what they have paid into it and calculated on what they would have paid in according to the standard rules that can only be taken from age 65 after retiring full time. I’ll applaud him for that.

      Then he could list through scrapping every single perk, expense, bonus, pension, nod and wink for every single person employed in the public sector earning over €70k.

      Then he could speak about how he is making FOI requests free and reducing the 30 year rule to 20 years and banning any civil servant using a post-it note – I tell you the reality that every decision made by civil servants and politicians will be available for judgement in due course will do more to focus their minds on accountability and transparency than any number of other reforms.

      I’d like a speech on how he is banning any donations to political parties from any corporate entity and that personal donations to the cent must be declared the day they are made on a public website anyone can access. How he is bringing in state funding of political parties and making it a legal requirement for every single political party to provide cent by cent accounts of spending and donations for the last 15 years from posters to teabags and for every single person elected to any position at local, national or supranational level to provide cent by cent accounts for everything they spend or receive that has even the remotest link to politics for the entire year – not just the time of a campaign. Plus disclosure of every cent of their financial assets to include every single asset that they hold jointly or have held but transferred and to show all their debts. If politicians have nothing to hide they’ve nothing to fear from people being able to prove they have no conflict of interest and are in hock to no one else

      There’s no shortage of things he could make a speech about and then actually go and do.

      But he will never make such a speech because he is intellectually incapable of knowing right from wrong.

      We hear this guff about how intelligent he is – it’s the same pathetic Irish inferiority complex that stops us expecting best practice in anything. He is not intelligent – although he’s certainly not stupid – as his political failures stem from his personal flaws which stem from the family and political environment he was raised in. This applies to every one of us – we get our moral standards through experience in the home and the example of our parents.

      Pretending otherwise means we never actually face up to our flaws as a people – instead Brian Lenihan is sick so we have to pretend he had no role in creating the present mess or that he hasn’t sold our children’s future to an IMF pawnbroker, or Brian Cowen is intelligent so let’s pretend he also had no role in creating this mess or Bertie Ahenr single handedly brought peace in our time so let’s pretend no one else did any donkey work for years before or that he isn’t a bigger waster than his mentor CJH.

      So less of the ‘how great thou art’ and a bit more of judging him on his actual tangiable record in office – which does not look good!

    • JD says:

      No credible commentator has ever said that the collapse of the property market was the SOLE cause of the recession, in much the same way that no doctor would ever say that only eating burgers and chips was the SOLE cause of someone’s coronary disease. That is just a disingenuous “straw man” attack.

      Still, it is a change of tack, I suppose, from that tiresome and false “it was the international economy, stupid” defence that Fianna Fail have been mouthing for well over a year.

      Also, Harry, I listened to a recording of last year’s speech at the time. If that was a masterclass in rhetoric, then the bar for excellent oratory has been set very low. I do not doubt the sincerity of your views, but your description does seem quite hyperbolic from my perspective.

      In fact, I wonder if you are like a man who has crawled through the desert for a few days and is given a cup of lukewarm day-old coffee to drink upon being rescued. He gulps it down gratefully because he has been deprived of liquid for so long, but hardly a tipple of choice in any normal situation.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      JD, your line about “a man who has crawled through the desert for a few days and is given a cup of lukewarm day-old coffee to drink upon being rescued” reminds me that Alan Sorkin is the writer who just keeps on giving.

      “in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
      President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference. ”

      Sure why not watch it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UAWGN1Wmxc

    • El Leader Maximo says:

      Well said Desmond Fitzgerald. This is awful stuff Harry. Cowen needs to get out more, Cowen needs to make an exciting speech etc? For God’s sake grow up. Does it matter what he says ? Just look at his track record. He rose without trace through Health, Foreign Affairs, Finance and now Taoiseach. I think you media people live in a bubble.. how many times do you have to write how intelligent he is, how capable he is. He’s not. Maybe in comparison with some corrupt, cretin county councillor but not by any other standard. If he didn’t go into politics he’d be a small town rural solicitor doing conveyancing and wills. Big deal. Just look at his awful track record over a 20 year period… that’s it, that’s what he’s capable of and nothing else.

      FF have absolutely destroyed the country again and again and this time it’s going to last for generations and be paid for by generations.

      I don’t care whether Bunter Cowen makes a rousing speech.. my mortagage stays the same, my job prospects stay the same. My low, low expectations of this State stay the same. It’s beyond childish the type of stuff we have to read in the media day after day as if all we need is some hope from some fat FF clown. We don’t. We need a functioning modern democracy and it will never ever happen as long as FF have access to power.

    • robespierre says:


      I just had a cursory scroll through The Economist archives. What about the article called “Shaky foundations – The higher house prices climb, the more they are likely to fall”
      from Nov 27th 2003.

      Ireland is cited prominently as having a bubble at that point. In Ireland it seems that profferring a cartoonish impression of a person as they appear in a speech is a substitute for foresight.

      Brian Cowen succeeded McCreevy some 8 months after this article. The Lex columns in the Times was looking at house prices for an age.

      If Cowen wasn’t occasionally looking at either the FT or the Economist while Minister for Finance I wouldn’t let him play tiddlywinks let alone run the country.

      The idea that this is/was a minoritarian view is simply not accurate. What we need is a Noam Chomsky style book where an author actually points out the amount of people THAT WERE saying it was a bubble versus the people with a vested interest like partial economists (as opposed to impartial ones like Jim Power, Dan O’Brien etc.).

      Nobody ever said it was the only reason for the recession. International factors played their part.

      It IS however the ONLY reason for the DEPRESSION. Well that and their/his incompetence which are symbiotically linked.

    • JD says:


      Hah! Going to plead “not guilty” to that one! Being thirsty in the desert is an obvious metaphor and I have tasted such coffee in the past and it is foul, foul, foul.

      Still, nice spot!

    • Cathal says:

      I hope you got his autograph

    • Thomas says:

      Good God, if I hear another comment about being patriotic and taking the pain, I’ll $%^&$&!!!!.

      These fat cats are sitting in their lofty towers paid for by the taxpayer, calling for patriotism, while they squander the money and have taken nearly two years and no real solution.

      What happened the 15% pay cut, which on a 100k salary would have left 85k, that’s still 1,500 a week. They should try living on minimum wage, then we would get action.

      Desmond has given very good suggestions, please Harry, get real

    • Thomas says:

      Oh Please Harry !!!

      You are joking, aren’t you ???

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      JD, didn’t mean to be suggesting that you were reworking it, just that it reminded me of it. Great minds and all that.

    • Michael Egan says:

      Censorship only works during ‘doorstep’ if journalists let it. Screw the diktats from Cowen, do your job and ask the damn question.

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      Don’t you think this picture of the Teashop would be ideal for a caption competition?

    • Vincent says:

      Ah Harry, not again. That’s TWO years in a row you’ve falled for this Cowen raiméis. Just because the man from Offaly delivers a “master class in rhetoric” once in a blue moon does not make up for his disastrous showing as leader of this country yet you have again fallen for it. Deeply disappointing.

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      The above ‘photo of the Teashop and those ubiquitous huddles of cosmetically challenged politicians assembled at the foot of the Stormont staircase, like finalists in an’ Ugly Bloke’ competition, surely gives credibility to the adage that politics is ‘show business for ugly people’.

    • Kynos says:

      I don’t know Blimey yer wan in the green top looks a fine beor.

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      Kynos…Beor? would that be ‘fine filly’ be any chance? Well you know the Equality laws require a few token women to decorate the place…

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      kynos@18 ‘Beor’ A Limerick expression from Travellers’ cant for a woman? But the exception to the rule and I think my point is made by the fact that neither she nor her ‘political office’ can be named…however you have an eye for ‘a grand bit of stuff’ as they say in my home townland !

    • kynos says:

      Unfortunately she’s also got her right hand covering her left so I can’t tell whether I ought to be spending time finding out more about who she and her political office are. Not that I’ve any interest in relationships me ho no perhaps should take up Poker according to the seanfhocail I’d be lucky at that. Beor is a Cork expression for a fine thing btw Blimey.

    • fine beor tho' says:

      She’s not the Tanaiste is she? No she’s blonde this one’s dark. Mysterious. Nah. She’s a politician. She’d only tell me she loved me once every five years.

    • I'll just tilt it back a bit an squint says:

      (Maybe it’s this old monitor)

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      @21 She’s obviously just keeping yiz guessin’!

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      Maybe she’s the ‘thin person that’s been waiting to get out’ of Mary Harney !

    • kynos says:

      I’lll say nowt more on that Blimey. No longer insulting people about their weight though used have goes at Harney aplenty in that department ashamed of meself for it now on the substantive is BIFFO someone who suffers crisies of confidence periodically? His inconsistency in public speaking, one time giving “master-classes in rhetoric” the next time sounding like a calf bawling over a hedge might indicate so. I’d say his perception of the public space in which he finds himself in any given situation vis-a-vis his own self-perceptions very much affects his performance at the lectern. So as you say when he finds himself in front of the “great and the good”, well, the wealthy and powerful anyway, he knows that he and his party have done everything the plutocratic controllers of FF have dictated, and thus his confidence is high. By contrast when he finds himself addressing the hoi-polloi, he knews in his innermost self how he and his party have betrayed us , and his oratorical performance reflects his nervousness and fear of this reality and its potential outcomes in other words the age-old Emperor’s fear of the Mob? Maybe we should make sure there’s a secret tunnel running from the podium of wherever he might be speaking back to the fastnesses of Leinster House for use in case of Riot and that might serve to increase his confidence? Just coming up with ideas to help.

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      ‘A calf bawling over a hedge’..classic kynos…I’m still spluttering…you are a gem!

Search Politics