Brian Cowen speaks of 'regret' over recession and accuses EU of failing State

Former taoiseach expresses regret for loss of jobs by so many during recession

The National University of Ireland conferred an honorary doctorate on the former taoiseach Brian Cowen at a ceremony in Dublin Castle.

 

Former taoiseach Brian Cowen has strongly criticised the EU for its behaviour towards Ireland during the financial crisis.

Mr Cowen accused the EU of a “lack of solidarity with small countries who were in difficulty” during the crisis.

Mr Cowen went on to say that “Europe forced certain countries such as Ireland to implement inappropriate decisions such as protecting international bondholders”.

He also said that the property crash in Ireland, Spain and Portugal “was in part fuelled by an inappropriate euro currency system.”

However, he said, Ireland was still much better off as an EU member.

Mr Cowen was speaking in Dublin Castle on Wednesday night at an event where he was conferred with an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland, an honour which has been bestowed on almost all former taoisigh.

He was taoiseach from May 2008 to March 2011, when he retired from politics following the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green government in disarray after the bailout and the arrival of the EU-ECB-IMF troika.

Mr Cowen has seldom spoken of his time in Government during the most intense period of the financial crisis, but gave a comprehensive defence and explanation of the actions of his government in the course of a lengthy speech.

He expressed regret for loss of employment suffered by so many people during the recession, which he described as “the greatest hardship of the recession”.  “Two hundred and fifty thousand of our two million workforce lost jobs, the vast majority in construction and related industries and in retail,” he said.  He said that his Government took the “required action” to stabilise the public finances in the full knowledge of the political consequences.

“We knew that the required action would understandably be more unpopular than almost any policies in recent Irish history and that this threatened the survival of the Government and our hopes of election. However, we also know that to avoid taking the decisions would mean that future recovery could be put off by decades,” Mr Cowen said.

In his speech Mr Cowen also sought to place the actions of his government at the beginning of the narrative of economic recovery, rather than just as the response to the financial crisis. He said that the actions of his government eventually led to the spectacular economic recovery of recent years.

“One aspect of the received political narrative regarding that time suggests that there was no strategy to provide for economic recovery during the 2008-2011 period. I want to refute that emphatically,” Mr Cowen said.

“While a considerable focus of our attention was on stabilising the economy, we also introduced a comprehensive set of policies that laid the foundations for growth returning by 2011 and the exceptional jobs growth we have seen in the last number of years. These policies have continued as a centrepiece of the current government’s policies,” he said.

“The decisive action we took saw an annual return to economic growth by 2011.”

He also said that the Governments led by Enda Kenny deserved credit for continuing the policies begun by the government he led.

Mr Cowen accepted that “the problems should have been identified earlier and policy should have changed prior to the crisis”, though he added that there was considerable consensus about the optimistic prospects for the Irish economy at the time. As minister for finance, he said, he was criticised for not increasing spending by more.

Mr Cowen also defended his personal record as taoiseach. “I was always observant of the principle of collective responsibility in government. I never briefed against a colleague or sought to influence a prospective decision by government through media leaks or otherwise,” he said. He strongly refuted suggestions that he had tried to throw colleagues “under a bus” in his evidence to the banking inquiry.

“That has never been my style and I defy anyone involved in the media who has covered politics during my career to come forward and give me even one instance where I did that,” Mr Cowen said.