Miriam Lord: Dr Biffo gets it off his chest at veterans’ reunion

Dublin Castle gathering of Fianna Fáil from different era hears defiant Brian Cowen

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

 

This article comes with a health warning. It describes scenes involving Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and sundry members of the last Fianna Fáil government.

They are in good spirits. They are enjoying themselves. They are all looking very well. They are gathered on the occasion of former taoiseach Cowen receiving an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland.

Some people may find this distressing and so it might be best for them to look away now. But there you are.

It was a lovely ceremony in Dublin Castle, with the lesser-spotted Cowen making a rare public appearance to accept this honour which has been bestowed on all but two holders of the taoiseach’s office. (The missing two are Eamon de Valera – who was chancellor of the university and couldn’t really award himself a doctorate – and John A Costello, for reasons unknown.)

Guests at the ceremony on Wednesday evening included Brian’s family and many friends from Offaly, Fianna Fáil colleagues and advisers from his time in government and a smattering of retired journalists.

As people gathered in the Hibernian Conference Centre, ferocious blasts from the past were shooting through the main doors. For onlookers of a certain vintage it was like waking up and finding yourself transported back in time to a different, more turbulent, decade.

Bertie was one of the first arrivals. He couldn’t exactly recall the year he got his honorary degree, but he reckoned it was around 2005 and perhaps it was in the Royal College of Surgeons. “It was in Stephen’s Green, I think. I was still taoiseach when I got it.”

The two Marys

He was followed by a roll-call of names from the Cowen/Ahern era. The two Marys – Hanafin and Coughlan – were there, along with other former ministers including Michael Smith, Martin Mansergh, Batt O’Keeffe, Frank Fahy, and Jim McDaid. Former MEP Liam Aylward made the trip, as did former senators Donie Cassidy and GV Wright.

Current Oireachtas members in attendance included Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Eamon Ó Cuiv and former PD leader and minister, now university senator Michael McDowell. Séamus Woulfe, the new Attorney General, was there, as was former secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach Dermot McCarthy.

Fianna Fáil’s general secretary Seán Dorgan was joined by a number of former party advisers such as academic Brian Murphy and former government press secretary, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, who served with both Cowen and Ahern, before a short stint with Enda Kenny.

His audience listened respectfully. They know all the arguments. Did they want to hear them again? Probably not. And there was nobody there to counter them

The audience in the conference hall was like a throwback to the premium seats at a Fianna Fáil ardfheis in the mid-2000s.

Cowen’s speech, delivered after his conferring, was a further nod to those days when the leader’s keynote address went on for ever.

The shell-shocked decommissioned Soldiers of Destiny finally staggered out for their glass of wine and nibbles after a 50-minute speech from Dr Biffo, which he used to explain why the pre- and post-crash Fianna Fáil governments have been sorely misunderstood.

And why the policies carefully put in place by his administration laid the foundation for Ireland’s economic recovery, and set the template for Kenny’s coalition government which followed.

Initiatives

“Those policies have continued to be pursued by this current Government,” he said after 10 pages of script devoted to reasons behind the crash and all the “initiatives” his government put in place to address it. He had a lot to get off his chest.

“Ah well, he had seven years to think about that speech,” said a sympathetic supporter afterwards.

This was always going to be an occasion when “don’t mention the war” was not going to be an oratorical option.

In her generous citation, focusing on Cowen’s many achievements during his long political career, Prof Mary E Daly pointed out he is the only person in the history of the State to hold the four key offices of minister for foreign affairs, finance, tánaiste and taoiseach.

However, she delicately referred to how his “vision had to give way to crisis management, unprecedented challenges to political institutions and vilification of government ministers”.

Or as Brian put it: “My own term as taoiesach proved to be an arduous task with the onset of the crisis, and the economic recession we experienced as a result.”

But while clearly still refighting old battles, he said he was not trying to blame others for what happened, and, despite what had been said in some reports, he never tried to “throw others under the bus”.

Unemployment

The “greatest hardship of the recession” was the huge rise in unemployment, “something which I deeply regret”.

Yet he could not resist pointing out that when minister for finance in 2007, opposition parties criticised him for bringing in a “measly” budget which “didn’t give people enough” and proposed “totally inadequate” spending.

His audience listened respectfully. They know all the arguments. Did they want to hear them again? Probably not. And there was nobody there to counter them.

As he spoke of leadership being, at times, “a lonely and isolating place”, he accepted he was in charge and had to take the rap.

“Those in power take responsibility; those out of power can succumb to expressing the populist soft options.”

There was no self-pity in his words, but a definite defiance.

Cowen – Dr Biffo – seemed slightly embarrassed by the pomp. He did his best posing for photographs in his scarlet gown lined with cuff and edging in a shade described as “prune”, fiddling with the velvet flat cap with its tassel hanging to one side.

Scarlet and prune – now there’s a good name for a hipster cafe.

He took it off for the photographers: “Ah lads, how do I put it back on again?”

Generous

The NUI chancellor, Maurice Manning, described his speech as “robust, thoughtful, imaginative and generous”.

Cowen said people could “call me doctor for a day” and that would be it, in deference to academics who actually study and work towards such a honour.

That’s the end of the ceremonials for him. He has said his piece now.

He hasn’t even sat for his official portrait yet; it should be hanging in the Dáil by now.

“Ah, sure I told them I’d get back to them. Maybe by the end of the year, you know yourself.”