Little new to be learned from Cowen’s TG4 interview
Former Taoiseach relaxed during first long interview since retiring from politics
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen said ‘Níl aon dabht go bhfuil ualach mór ar na daoine (there’s no doubt there’s a heavy burden on the people),” in an interview for TG4. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Was it the Irish equivalent of ‘Oprah’s couch’, the comfortable set where America’s biggest TV star has coaxed tears out of her famous guests, and the occasional confession like that of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong? TG4’s Comhrá has all the trapping, armchairs, a set that looks like a living room and a very relaxed and soft-speaking host in the shape of Máirtín Tom Sheáinín Mac Donncha.
The coup of this year’s season — the first long interview with former Taoiseach Brian Cowen since he retired form politics two and a half years ago — showed a guest who was far more relaxed, less uptight and defensive than he was at any time during his last five years in politics.
Cowen spoke openly in very fluent and flowing Irish — save the odd tiny stumble — during the 30 minute programme broadcast on TG4 last night which looked at the whole of his life, with only five minutes focusing on the controversies he became embroiled in over his performance as minister for finance and as Taoiseach.
There were no real information that was new and he showed that the formulaic responses he resorted to in English when defending himself can also be fully utilised as Gaeilge. He reheated his standard defence that everybody (including the IMF) thought the Irish economy was in for a “tuirlingt bhog” (soft landing). He did accept that a minority of people had warned about the impending crash but the Government relied on the preponderance of advice that was to the contrary.
When it came to new disclosures, his roundabout admission that the Government wasn’t really planning for a calamity, and his own (earlier) revelation that he never really expected to become taoiseach until the job fell in his lap (although just about everybody else had him down as Bertie Ahern’s natural successor). “Níl aon dabht go bhfuil ualach mór ar na daoine (there’s no doubt there’s a heavy burden on the people),” he acknowledged talking about the effects of the crisis.
A lot of the interview was following the Comhrá formula — looking back at the person’s life. It dwelt a lot on his childhood in Co Offaly, his foreshortened football career, his relationship with his father Ber, and his lifelong affiliation with Fianna Fáil. One of the most interesting sections of the interview is his recollection of his time working in the family business in Clara, Co Offaly which was a pub, auctioneers, butchers, and undertakers.
The tone of the programme is laid back and casual and Máirtín Tom Sheáinín’s questions are not confrontational at any stage. While many of the guests dress casually, the former Taoiseach is wearing a suit and tie but is relaxed and at ease throughout, although he never opens up in the way that would be expected on Oprah Winfrey. He does make a few tangential references to the effect that some of the more personal criticism (about the Galway think-in and about drinking) have had on his family and those close to him, however. It’s still a feather in the hat for TG4 to land the first one-on-one interview with the former Taoiseach.
People will learn as much from this as they would have learned form any other long interview with the former Taoiseach, sympathetic or hostile. And that is very little.