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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 21, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Snowblind waltz

    Harry McGee

    There is a rule attributed to Alastair Campbell about when the damage from a political scandal becomes irreparable.

    If eleven days after the intitial controversy breaks in the media, the story is still being kept alive and prominent in the media, then the politician is a goner.

    Two decisive moves yesterday have halted Brian Cowen’s slide. By my calculation, it happened on day eight.

    The obvious one was the B&B press conference at the steps of Government Buildings. The semiotics of it were obvious. Flanking the Taoiseach was the most senior member of Government (Mary Coughlan’s title of Tanaiste is being treated more as an honorarium these days); his most obvious rival for the top job; and the man increasingly seen by many rank and file TDs as the moral authority of the party.  Lenihan more or less ruled himself out for the job (but only for now – he still harbours ambitions). Cowen’s performance was lively, human, to the point and jargon free. Crisis averted.

    Some newspapers  are still  forcing the issue today with news stories composed of (the newspapers’ own) value judgement and the usual alarmist prose (beleagured, embattled, revolt etc..).  But it’s over for the moment, as far as I can read it.

    But that’s not to say that this is merely a pause in hostilities and we may see the crisis for Cowen returning with a vengeance on day 10 and 11 when the first of the autumn newspaper polls arrive. If they are even more abysmal for FF and for Cowen than already abysmal polls, the muttering may begin again.

    The second event that was decisive yesterday was the statement from Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae. Their message: No Cowen as Taoiseach equals No Suppport from the two independents equals General Election.

    “That put the sheep back in the pen quick enough,” said one of Cowen’s outspoken backbench supporters when describing fellow TDS who are  nervous about their seats.

    The threat from Lowry was enough to drive back some of the middle ground mutterers. At the back of their mind, they think that Cowen will lead the party into oblivion. But they also know that if Lowry withdraws support, a change in leadership is Apocalypse Now rather that Apocalypse in February or March 2011.

    So the immediate threat to Cowen has been averted. And once again he has learnt his lesson and has promised to do better. As he did in front a parliamentary party meeting in July. As he did earlier this year when John McGuinness challenged his leadership. As he did in May 2008 when he told Sean O’Rourke that he would mend his ways.

    It’s been a strange period. For Brian Cowen. For Irish politics. And on a much more humble level, for me.

    I have been on parental leave for the past few weeks (we had a baby daughter, our first) and so have been in the very unusual situation (in the odd moment between nappy changes and hoarse lullabies) of being a consumer rather than a conveyor of political news and opinion.

    Managing a political crisis is like trying to contain a highly contagious disease. Everything has to be isolated and contained. One microscopic germ escaping can spell danger and the further spread of contagion. Thus Dermot Ahern gave an interview on RTE’s Six One last week where he backed Cowen without equivocation and without  qualification. But in the course of the interview, he admitted that some TDs had approached him with their concerns. What had been intended as a senior minister giving stout support to  the leader became a different type of story. It became a story about unhappy TDs looking desperately for a champion to oust the king. Ahern didn’t set out to do that. But that was the consequence.

    Of course, that was unfair. But nothing in politics is fair. Fianna Fail in opposition (and Cowen was to the fore here) were brutal and cruel. Fine Gael has been partisan and pointed this week. Simon Coveney’s tweet was very nasty. He compounded it by never apologising for using the word ‘drunk’. He said he accepted the Taoiseach’s word for it. Which wasn’t the same.

    Cowen was not the first politician to give a morning interview after a heavy night before. I have seen leaders of other parties and senior politicians doing early morning interviews after socialising until 4am and even 5am the night before at Ard Fheiseanna. Of course, they were opposition leaders. And they pulled it off without sounding groggy or slury. And they weren’t the Taoiseach of the country during an unprecedented crisis.

    It’s not fair. None of it is. Political life is ugly, brutish and short. The media are piranhas. The slug-line is Talk to Joe. It should be Stalked by Joe. And by everybody else, including the sober and upright ones (like ourselves!). And once a feeding frenzy begins, it’s very very difficult to halt the slide.

    This is particularly the case fo the tabs and the mid-markets. How did the Irish Daily Mail report it as a FACT that Brian Cowen had consumed eight pints of lager that fateful night. When you read down the text, it was a guesstimation based on the average consumption of pints over an eight hour period. The Irish Daily Mail didn’t have a clue how much he drank. He could have drank far more. He could have drank less. They decided to conjure up a figure and present it as a FACT.

    Is there any comeback? Nah. When it’s open season, it’s open season.

    Of course, the central indisputable fact is this: Cowen was up until three o’clock in the morning and sounded rancid on the radio next morning.

    And for not having the discipline to go to bed early and trying to burn the candle at both ends, he was the author of his own misfortune. In his job, at this time, there is no margin for error.

    The subtext for the story was obvious. Since becoming Taoiseach (and before) there has been a question hanging over his alcohol consumption. On my rare foray out of the bubble to encounter civilians, the question most ask about Cowen is about his drinking. The answer I always give is I don’t know. He likes his pints but his drinking is done in private, mostly away from the media and others.  The late night at Galway opened the floodgates.

    Cowen’s performance on Morning Ireland was rank. It was a snowblind waltz, a man flailing blindly towards a destination.

    That should not have been surprising.

    I have long said that Cowen’s huge reputation as a politician has been based on a tiny number of stellar performances interspersed with countless and endless mediocrities.

    My first real interview with him was in 2002 when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs. I learned to my shock that the man could be mind-numbingly boring. And so careful. He conceded nothing, never expressed a personal opinion. He essentially delivered an Iveagh House technical  briefing paper on United Nations resolutions in a monotonous voice, with no pause for breath. I was trying to find out whether he supported the US and British plan to invade Iraq. He spend the whole of the interview kicking for touch, being non-commital and ambiguous. I borrowed an old line of Declan Kiberd’s to describe the encounter: “If Brian Cowen was in the Garden of Eden he wouldn’t bite the apple, he’d merely lick it.”

    I can count on the fingers of two hands Brian Cowen’s moments of utter brilliance in public life. Some were telling, like his intervention in the General Election campaign in 2007 when he came to Bertie Ahern’s aid and demolished Fine Gael’s economic policies. There was his March 2003 speech in the Dáil on the invasion of Iraq (I disagreed with the sentiment but it was a great performance). There was the 17 and a half minutes speech to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in 2009. And a few other from-the-heart performances.

    Those who work closely with Cowen in Government say he is a very hard worker, a team player, very demanding and decisive. Problem is we don’t see it. Or if we do, it’s sporadically.

    Cowen cuts a very negative persona in public. He’s always seems defensive and on the back foot. He is seldom dynamic, seldom bothers to deliver hope or vision. He goes through media interviews as if they are a burden and a bore, resorting to lazy meanignless technical language.

    His supporters say he won’t play the media game. But he does play the game but lets others make up the rules . He does doorstep interviews and radio and TV interviews. And badly in most cases. Caution. Conservativism. They were the two words I always appended to Brian Cowen.

    He has survived for now. But his leadership has been poor. How many times has he told people he is going to improve his communications, get out there with fire in the belly, face down his detractors, sell some hope and vision to the people. And how many times has he done that for a week or two and then lapsed into default monotony.

    His supporters (including cheerleader in chief Batt O’Keeffe) argue that by his deeds shall you know him. But what he doesn’t get is that deeds in politics mainly involve talking and explaining and selling to your people. He’s the captain of the ship, not the engineer stuck way down in the hull.

    He never grabs the initiative at media events. He seems to want to do as little media as possible.

    Unlike other political leaders in Ireland and elsewhere, he has refused to do newspaper interviews. Besides one interview with The Sunday Independent he has not done a full interview with an Irish newspaper for almost two years.

    The quandary for Fianna Fail is this. Any rival who replaces him will witness two things happening in quick succession. Firstly they themselves will become Brian Cowen. Secondly, they will find themselves caught up in an unwinnable General Election campaign.

    The standard calculation is that any potential successor will wait until after the election to pick up the pieces (but none of the Cowen-~Bertie Ahern baggage). Problem is there may be no pieces to pick up. Fianna Fail might find themselves in a worse place than Fine Gael were in 2002, facing a generation of recuperation.

    I believe it’s now too late for Cowen. This Government has about six months left and he has shot his bolt, has been a disappointment. He needs to pull off some kind of miracle over the winter to recover lost ground and lost reputations.

    There is a school of thought that a fresh leader, put in place before an election, could effect some kind of a salvage operation and have something to work with.

    That’s arguable. Look at the salutary example of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in Australia. Gillard replaced Rudd and called a snap election. Did it make any difference ultimately? If it did, it was marginal.

    • Michael says:

      I wonder is there a situation in which Cowen can win? Let’s say he hired some intrepid speech-writers and went to various meetings giving supposedly rousing speeches. Let’s say he practised sentences and sound-bites for interviews in the same uplifting vein. I don’t know if it could be pulled off. The situation is terrible; anything uplifting he might say in a “fight them on the beaches” manner will, one supposes, be lambasted for vacuousness. He genuinely can’t answer most questions completely honestly because he doesn’t want to add to the gloom. It might also be that his image as dour technocrat plays well abroad and builds confidence in markets where a Sarkozy or a Blair would be seen as lightweight. I can’t imagine him not possessing some kind of media strategy and advisers to that end; it will be interesting to get their take on it once they’re in a position to speak.

    • Donana says:

      Not sure about your analysis here Harry. People are no longer prepared to tolerate the ‘F**k off and mind your own business” style of communication that Cowen prefers. Despite what his supporters say about his hard work, Cowen has never been able to rise to a challenge in his political life. He ran out of Health, he funked it in Finance, and as Taoiseach, his disastrous decision on the bank guarantee has cost the state billions and has meant that every decision taken by him since then has been compromised by the need to pretned that the original decision was the correct one. Please give us the people some credit. We don’t believe everything we read and we can make up our own minds on many issues.

    • paul m says:

      Now that independents Lowry and Healey Rae have settled down all cosy in the run in to retirement and keep collecting their commitments from Cowen, the opposition have potentially lost one of the quickest avenues to a general election.

      so Harry will there be anything to come of Sinn Fein’s legal appeal over the bye elections that could provide the next chance at unseating the FF majority?

      Beyond that what else do the opposition have to effectively call an early election? The backbenchers would have to be convinced to do the right thing and sacrafice their paycheque and government seat. I cant think of one FF TD who has the stomach, let alone the moral compass for that.

      congratulations on the baby daughter, am six months into fatherhood myself and my own daughter is a wonderful tonic that fends off the worst of a difficult year.

    • Feathers McGraw says:

      Says it all about the state of Irish politics that Micheal Lowry is allowed to call the shots.

    • Mark says:

      Congrats on your first child, Harry.

      I’d say it was more Halligan’s question than Coveney’s tweet that was ‘nasty’. Noel Whelan said a lot of it on Saturday, a “make the f***er deny it” style question. It’s led to a bizarre conventional-wisdom/largely-unchallenged-opinion now that Cowen was drunk on air when not even his opponents accuse him of it.

      Headlines around the world contain the word ‘drunk’ due to Cowen’s denial, not the Coveney comment/accusation.

    • Eanna Kelly says:

      Excellent piece Harry, very comprehensive. Cowen’s torpor will amount to heavy capital damage to Fianna Fail’s seat allocation in the inevitable 2011 election. With no credible replacement for him in the interim, the party can do little else but steel themselves for the heavy impact.

    • barbera says:

      So Alastair Campbell is your Guru, Harry – you do realize the man had (I emphasize had) a serious alcohol problem at one stage…!!
      I don’t agree with you at all on this one since I think Brian Cowen has been nothing short of a political stalwart in leading his party and containing the financial crisis in particular. A general election before the due date would be nothing short of catastrophic for this country and in particular for Ireland’s image abroad. In actual fact, I think it is the political/economic correspondents in this country (how many do we need??) that are waltzing around in the clouds.
      Congrats btw on new baby girl.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Isn’t the actual ‘story’ not that he may have been drunk or hungover but the fact that the taxpayer paid the bill for a Fianna Fáil party lock in (who paid the security bill and why where all the state mercs there at a party event – you don’t see state cars at party conferences here in the UK or journalists holding up the bar with the very people they are meant to hold to account) and that he knew he had a huge interview the next morning and was completely unprepared for it – when you read the transcripts that much is clear.

      He was never in danger because removing him would cause an election and the irony would be that those who supported removing him wold face more anger for that lack of ‘loyalty’ than for the massive incompetent of the last few years and for causing an election that removed FF from power they would face vengence.

      It does seem interesting that having completely failed to show some backbone and dig for the truth with Ahern, and for swallowing the myth that Cowen had ‘brains to burn’ despite having no track record of any achievements in any department as a minister, that the meda are now again swallowing the script from FF that Lenihan is worthy of succeeding Cowen when all he has done is borrow so much money it gives him enough space to avoid making the decisions required on strucural reform he should have made 2 years ago. All the money being borrowed has to be paid back.

      On what basis is Lenihan the obvious successor, even without the health issues.

      This is the man whose moral and ethic code was influenced by his father and aunt and their unflinching support for CJH and latterly for Ahern – Lenihan is a continuation of that mentality. He thought it was ethical to make an agreement in the early hours to bail out his friends in Anglo without it being done at a proper cabinet meeting with a proper record taken and everyone present – not agreeing to something by phone half asleep. John Gormley should also have had the moral ethics to have not agreed to anything until he had time to assess it and to read the advice but that’s another story.

      Lenihan offers no new narrative or vision for the future, I realise he can’t do so in detail or be seen to undermine the current Taoiseach but is there any evidence fo what policy leanings he has on any issue. Any evidence he isn’t just CJH/Ahern/Cowen part IV?

      As to his health, it is a slick trick to deflect any questions about his health as distasteful yet if you are going to allow yourself be considered for Taoiseach and accept public sympathy ‘for your troubles’ then that public have the right to know the truth about your health.

      The media have a resonsibility to ask those difficult questions because it was the media’s failure to do so in the past which led to the sort of cronyism that rotted the system of governance fro mthe inside out, if a few more media people had done their job in the 70s we might have been spared CJH and all who came after him, which includes the likes of Burke, Flynn, Ahern, Lenihan SNr, O’Rourke etc etc and now Cowen and Lenihan Jnr, the heirs of CJH.

    • Nice piece, Harry, and congrats to you and Fiona. Great news!

      From my vantage point in Central America, so glad to be out of the country at this time, the most amazing thing is how a ´hangover´ on the radio brewed up such a political and media storm when the real issue is how badly Ireland has been mis-managed by the current Government.

      No Government in history has bailed out irresponsible bankers to the extent that the current Irish regime has and yet the debate centres on how many pints our ´great leader´consumed before appearing on Morning Ireland.

      Why is there no uproar from the people who voted for the Greens in the last election … did they really vote that way to allow the last Government to cling on to power?

      Why is there no uproar that a tiny group of individual TDs, who only care about their own backyards, are in a position where they can allow this Government to stumble on?

      Why are the people who are losing their jobs, unable to pay their mortgages, or living in fear of the banks, not out on the streets demanding change?

      Why are the taxpayers not demanding an inquiry into how their money is being spent, bailing out the very people who went from a lunatic, greedy consumer driven boom to bringing the Banana Republic to the verge of bankruptcy?

      No, all we want to find out is how many pints our Taoiseach had during his night out with the boys in Galway. It´s incredible.

    • Alex says:

      I cannot see anything happening in the short term but I reckon we will all see a general election in the early part of next year. Mainly because I think the taxes the green party are trying to push through are going to cripple the country and also because it is blatantly obvious this country has no need for the Seanad and yet Fianna Fail will do nothing about it. It is also worth noting this country has no need for so many T.D’s and in fact this country could comfortably survive with only 78 good T.D’s and Ministers. This provides an average of 3 T.D’s/Ministers per county. I am afraid what we need as a country is people with some business acumen running the country which will look at returning the country to a surplus as opposed to running it with a deficit. Good business ethics will return this country to it’s rightful position within the world trade markets.

    • Donal O'Keeffe says:

      I think a lot might depend on whether any of the polls in the field are published over the next few days. By my calculation next Sunday will be day eleven so that day’s front pages will decide it if Malcolm Tucker, er, Alastair Campbell is correct.

      Congratulations on the birth of your daughter.

    • John Williams says:

      I don’t agee that there will be a FF wipe-out at the next election. There is a large hard core of supporters in the ‘FFfamily’ that will ensure many TDs get back despite the opinion polls. The FG/Labour group will be lucky if they don’t have to depend on a third group for support (SF or Inds).

    • Eanna Kelly says:

      @Barbera- In no way shape or form as Brian Cowen been a political stalwart. Your views on the matter, i fully expect, form the minority opinion. The snowblind waltz is a perfect description of the Anglo debacle, a course Cowen directed us down whilst maintaining his perpetual abject manner. Has he given assurance, has he inspired? No- He has preserved a silent contempt for having to answer questions and/or explain his government’s direction in any great detail. I’m sorry Barbera, I strongly disagree with your claims.

    • Tom Cosgrave says:

      Welcome back Harry, I was wondering where you had gotten to. Congratulations!
      I notice that Cown has been much better in the last couple of days. But as you suggest, how long will it be before he gets another political knockback or has a row, or some scandal erupts, and he slides back to his old self?

      The fact is that Brian Cowen – and the rest of his government – are on borrowed time.

    • robespierre says:

      I know you have a legal background Harry but I do not agree that Coveney’s “tweet” was very nasty. It may be part of a new front for communications in the political arena but I deeply disagree that it was either nasty or very nasty.

      It was an opinion and it is one that many other people shared.

      Most people I know thought the same as Coveney. but universal justice would demand that a “paper of record” uphold journalistic standards and that they avoid the kind of character assassinations we associate with the angry racist belch of the “Irish” Daily Mail and the polemical Sindo.

    • minXie says:

      Ah lads…!! Did you see one of the headlines today in the IT. The “Swedish Model” — that beloved paradigm for Ireland of Vincent Browne – is gone up in smoke. Vanquished !! That news and Pope Benedict’s extraordinarily successful visit to Scotland & England leaves me with no faith whatsoever in the kind of commentary that certain elements of Irish media have been subjecting us to.

    • paul m says:

      ah barbera, the FF jean d’arc

      I’d love to hear your examples of Cowens ‘political stalwart’ in leading his party. You never fail to come to the defence of the government but do fall considerably short in giving examples to back up your opinions.

      Cowen was not elected leader by the people of ireland he was handed it by a small group of people who purport to represent the nations interests. So he is not an elected leader of the country and never will be seen as such by myself nor many others.

      The financial crisis here is directly attributable to FF and Brian Cowens tenure as finance minister, so a parallel would to be describe it like Bush saying he’s contained the war in Iraq. Both self made men with self made problems fueled by ordinary peoples money, running a country into debt. Bush however was elected by the people.

      i think the polticial and economic correspondents have so far amongst them managed to hit nearly every nail in the FF coffin on the head. Owing to the lack of transparency over the real government figures not only are we but the opposition parties having to draw from the well of information that is sending smoke signals the governments way – The IMF and ECB. Time and again warnings come from them. time and again our government insists we have it under control. They warned us about over inflating the property bubble. FF said that was never going to happen and its under control.

      how many FF TD’s does it take to deny they are finished in government? probably more than the equivalent number of political correspondents you see waltzing in the clouds.

    • Donal O'Keeffe says:

      By my calculation, Sunday will be Day Eleven. If any of the outstanding polls are published between here and trhen we’ll see if Malcolm Tucker, er, Alastair Campbell is correct.

      Congratulations on the birth of your daughter.

    • robespierre says:

      Thanks for spiking half my post Harry. I challenge you to ask your readers to review the “very Irish hangover” piece from last weeks Saturday review section and I would also challenge you to ask them whether they thought Coveney’s challenge was “very nasty” or whether an article based on unidentified sources is very nasty. At least Coveney was putting his name to a tweet. He didn’t hide behind a editorial byline.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Going on the track record of the Irish, I bet the polls see a rise in FF support because the public will go ‘ aw poor Biffo can’t even have a few pints’, just like they went ‘aw poor Bertie can’t even keep a few coppers in the safe’ – the strongest human emotion is denial, not love or war.

      Be it denial about a bad marriage or relationship or denial about who’s really to blame for whatever you feel is wrong in your life. So too with politics in Ireland.

      You could say the hold Fianna Fáil has on a large section of the Irish voting public is an abusive relationship, it’s not quite at the stage where the victim of the abuse has stopped wallowing in denial even with the broken arm, black eye, bust lip, the public are still desperate to see some sign that FF will change so they can forgive them, even though they know deep down FF will never change and it happen all over again.

      Time will tell if they have the guts to walk out the door to a better future with FG and L, maybe settling for second best but if you stay with the violent FF, sooner or later someone ends up dead on the floor and it’s rarely the abuser. So the polls will be very revealing about this alleged ‘seething anger’ we keep hearing about but seeing little evidence for.

    • Kynos says:

      Congratulations on your daughter’s arrival to you and her mum Harry.

    • McDermot says:

      Please support this petition calling for a general election!

    • jo bangles says:

      Gosh…Des is in flyin’ form today…
      but might not the alternative scenario… to continue the analogy…be that the ‘abused’ partner will just decide that all wo/men are bastards and opt out of’relationship’ altogether…
      See how I was gender neutral I was on that… although of course we know most victims of doestic abuse are women…don’t want to offend any male sensibilities…
      Anyway I think the ‘relationship’ abusive or otherwise with either party Leader and the Electorate would be ‘a bit crowded’…
      What makes you think any other middle of the road monetarist party/coalition would be any better…
      Also I don’t think your idealised squeaky clean politican exists…
      I’m sure you are familiar with the ‘Chatham House rules’ that are apply when Politicians are ‘off the record’
      This is really just Civil War Politics isn’t it…?
      Talking of Commandments your comments about Brian Lenihan suggests you probably have more in common with Doubting than your putative ancestor Sliken Thomas…it also reminds of that unsetling line of John Lennon’s from ‘Come Together’…i.e. ‘Hold you in his arms yeah…you can feel his disease’…It seems nothing less will satisfy you of this man’s condition…!

    • mInXie says:

      @ 21 — NO WAY — a general election would be counter-productive at this time. Even if a coalition of “others” got into power at this time they wouldn’t last three months, given the impossibility of their remit which would be to solve “all our problems” — it would be suicidal for any opposition and an expense the country cannot afford. Get real.

    • Des Canine says:

      Good article Harry – and congrats.

    • Des Canine says:


    • ed says:

      Well 11 days or more gone by and Cowen featured in a full on Jay Leno CNBC piece last night being mocked. Biggest audience yet I’d imagine.

    • george mcnulty says:

      how can a tax evader like lowry have any influence on moral or political leadership in ireland today?, george mcnulty,france

    • Steve Rawson says:

      Just came across this piece while researching – Great article Harry

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