High Drama in Cowenland
Deaglán de Bréadún
So the race will be on at last when Brian Cowen fires the starter’s pistol on Tuesday afternoon in Dail Eireann. There has rarely been such a long lead-in to any poll. There seems to have been an endless overture before the grand opera finally began.
Not that we have been short of drama in the last couple of weeks. Last Saturday, your humble scribe went into town for shopping etc. Would he take his mini-recorder with him, just in case a story broke? Ach no, there’s nothing going to happen today.
An hour later, there he is, sitting down with a coffee, ready for a leisurely ramble through the Saturday morning papers. Bing! A text message lands. Taoiseach to hold news conference in an hour’s time at the Merrion Hotel.
Janey mac! What’s going on? Is he stepping down as party leader or as head of government? The location was a clue: if he was stepping down as Taoiseach he would do it across the street in Government Buildings. A tried and trusted source confirmed the only crown of thorns he is dispensing with today is the party one.
The fundamental rule of news journalism is, when a story breaks, get to the scene asap. So the Merrion Hotel it is. The journos and camera crews are already gathering. It’s like Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Every time you look, there is more of them.
RTE’s “Saturdayview” rings to find out what’s going on. In a minute or so, the present writer is on the air, telling what he knows, confirming that a previously-impeccable source has confirmed Mr Cowen is giving up the Fianna Fail crown but keeping the prime minister’s role for the present.
The Merrion is the site of the Duke of Wellington’s birthplace and a bust of the great man is staring uninterestedly into space beside me as I respond to questions on the phone.
The journos are finally being allowed into the Wellesley Room for the news conference but I am so wrapped up in my broadcast that I hardly realise the place is almost full. Quick –grab a seat!
Cowen arrives. His face is composed but what a turbulence of emotions must be raging behind that stiff upper lip. He makes his announcement and the questioning starts. It is bloody hard to get a question in, but finally someone acknowledges my flailing hand.
Politics to me is primarily a human drama. Thus I frame my question in the context of a recent column in The Irish News where Denis Bradley, a respected figure in the peace process, compared Cowen to John Hume, arguing that they both did the right thing, regardless of the cost in party-political terms. Did Cowen feel he had paid the price for doing what was right rather than what was popular?
It’s not the usual type of question I would have asked him. Normally I would be trying to catch him out on some issue, and so would every other reporter. For example, it was I who highlighted his negative attitude to the other parties in the first Lisbon referendum campaign, a story that caused the Cowen camp considerable upset. But on the day that was in it, I would have been ashamed if I hadn’t put this alternative and highly-unfashionable perspective to him.
A prominent broadcast journalist berated me in abrupt tones afterwards, pointing to Cowen’s social contacts with the Anglo-Irish Bank people as damning (?) evidence that he was involved in the usual Fianna Fail-style crony capitalism. That’s what I should have focused on, he said, and on any other day I probably would have. There is an alternative narrative in recent Irish politics which suggests that History may be kind to Brian Cowen in the end, whatever about present-day public opinion. I don’t necessarily buy into that narrative but thought it was worth putting it to him. A secondary but not entirely insignificant factor is that you don’t kick a man when he is down – at least this reporter doesn’t.