Singing Taoiseach hits bum note as critics lap up 'Gargle-gate' in Galway
A sore head was the least of Brian Cowen’s problems yesterday, writes MIRIAM LORD, in Galway
IT WAS the Morning Irelandafter the night before.
The Taoiseach sounded dog rough. Wheezy. Groggy. Muzzy. A bit slow.
Around the breakfast tables of the nation, butter knives hovered above toast and and tea-cups paused mid-air as people listened, then mused: “God, but Biffo sounds like he had a right skinful last night.”
Whereupon all hell broke loose and the roof caved in on Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil. So began an extraordinary day in Irish politics and media.
Here’s your simple guide to Gargle-gate:
Was The Taoiseach out way past his bedtime drinking pints?
How do we know?
Because we were there.
Should he have left the pub before half three in the morning?
Did he belt out a song for a cheering crowd and do a few funny impersonations?
Was he any good?
Yes, actually. He was a hoot.
Did he look drunk?
Did anyone whisper to him that it was time to go?
Not that we saw.
Has he only himself to blame?
Is he utterly mortified now?
Does that matter?
No. The genie is out of the bottle now.
By the end of an incredible day yesterday, a sore head was the least of Brian Cowen’s problems. He was a humiliated man with a badly damaged reputation, a laughing stock in the international press and an embarrassment to his appalled colleagues who had to rally to his defence.
In the Ardilaun Hotel, party handlers and the Taoiseach’s closest allies wandered about, stunned, whispering into their mobile phones.
The skies have opened over Fianna Fáil and the party is sinking. The Taoiseach took his demoralised troops to Galway in an effort to put some steel in their souls, but in his accident-prone fashion, he managed to insert it between their shoulder blades instead.
The politicians should have been returning to their constituencies yesterday afternoon with a clearer outlook and a bit more pep in their step.
But if they were fragile before they arrived, they were shattered when they left.
All because their boss sounded hungover during his interview on Morning Ireland. This led to a bizarre chain of events as the media went into overdrive and Fianna Fáil went into meltdown.
Why such a frenzied reaction to this 13 minutes of airtime?
Because in the media, it has often been hinted that our sociable Taoiseach is overly fond of a drop, but nobody had ever said it or written it straight out.
When radio shows and the internet began buzzing and tweeting about Cowen’s woeful performance, and one of those questioning his level of sobriety included an Opposition frontbench spokesman, the journalists had legitimate grounds to broach this sensitive issue.
Some have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time – Cowen gave it to them on a plate.
Had the storm not erupted, Monday night’s very pleasant and relaxed gathering in the bar of the Ardilaun would not have been reported in any great detail.
Think-ins are a blend of business and socialising. Some say the bonding element is every bit as important as the speeches and the workshops. There is usually a sing-song in the bar after dinner. The leader usually circulates. Pints are bought. Gossip swapped. Contacts cemented.
We’re not talking Sodom and Gomorrah here (although we had a snigger yesterday morning when an attractive young female journalist told us how one Fianna Fáil backbencher (a noted letch) bought her six gin and tonics and then promised to introduce her to the Taoiseach.
In fact, only two major incidents come to mind in the history of the think-in drink-ins. Fianna Fáil’s Peter Kelly once juggled a pitcher of water on his head while juggling his shoes and then sang a medley of Elvis numbers into his upturned tie.
On another occasions, Enda Kenny said in an interview that he looked better in cycling shorts than Bertie Ahern – images that still give us nightmares.
On Monday, there was the usual dinner in the ballroom. This was followed by an address from former GAA president Joe McDonagh, who finished his contribution with a rousing rendition of The West’s Awake.
After the meal, some deputies went into the city for a drink. Some retired for the night and more headed for the hotel bar, Cowen among them.
Senior Ministers – interestingly enough, the ones who would be spoken of as leadership contenders – schmoozed journalists at the small bar in the ballroom, but the lure of the sing-song was impossible to resist.
Two non-drinkers, Senator Donie Cassidy and MEP Brian Crowley, were directing the entertainment. Brian played the piano for a while. Donie was MC, beating people up to sing.
He pleaded all night for a representative of the media to sing. It was by the grace of God that nobody took him up on it.
Cowen sang just the one song, a passionate rendition of The Lakes of Pontchartrain.
It was well after midnight and nudging 1am when the Taoiseach was prevailed upon again. This time, he did a very funny routine, mimicking Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh along with a famous Kilkenny hurler and a quintessential Dub.
He brought the house down. Encouraged by the ovation and as the crowd called for more, he agreed to do an encore.
Wagging a finger at the journalists – also enjoying a drink and enjoying the show – he cautioned them not to get him into trouble by reporting his performance.
He then did an extremely funny impersonation of former Ryder Cup golfer Philip Walton who had a rather high-pitched voice, and his then team captain, the gruff Scotsman Bernard Gallacher.
He swung an imaginary club as he spoke, then exhaled to give impression of a ball flying through the air. It was very good.
Then the Taoiseach joined some friends for a drink. From what we saw he was having a few slow pints.
Various people sang. A man played the tin whistle. It was a bit like the afters of a country wedding. Cowen chatted for a while with Batt OKeeffe.
We left as the time neared 3am. At this stage, Cowen was talking to people in the lobby. He didn’t have a drink with him. We hear he retired at about 3.30am.
It was a good night. Nobody went mad, at least from what we could see. Which brings us to what happened next. That awful interview – it wasn’t what he said, but the manner in which he said it.
Calls flooded into radio stations. Was Cowen still drunk? Hungover? Did he realise how bad he sounded?
Suddenly, the atmosphere in the Ardilaun became highly charged. When the Taoiseach arrived, TV3’s Ursula Halligan asked the question crackling over the airwaves: was he drunk or hungover during the interview?
The Taoiseach looked shocked, as his minders pushed Ms Halligan out of the way and steered him into the hall. He took grave offence at the question and, highly indignant, absolutely denied the charge.
A media frenzy ensued, although some of us were stranded in a strange place between sanctimony and complicity.
As the morning wore on, reinforcements arrived down from Dublin newsagencies. Already, the Taoiseach’s denial had made the Wall Street Journal.
The price of Irish bonds jumped, ratings agency Standard and Poors pronounced.
An air of hysteria took hold. Two senior Ministers were trotted out to rubbish the allegations. Inside the hall, they were talking about Nama and the €30 billion Anglo bailout. Outside, Micheál Martin was insisting “clearly, that the issue seems to be he was a little hoarse”.
Then Noel Dempsey (both Ministers were nearly driven through the backdrop by the advancing media) declared: “I think Brian was a little bit nasal” before saying: “I often have a frog in my throat in the morning.”
Dermot Ahern said on radio that it was widely known “the Taoiseach suffers from congestion”.
“I understand he has a cold,” said Seán Haughey. Tony Killeen blamed the clattering of cutlery in the background for putting Cowen off his stride.
Seán O’Rourke, meanwhile, on the lunchtime news, was getting stuck into Simon Coveney. “Do you stand over your tweet?”
”A man is being knocked back because he is hoarse in the morning and congested,” said Mary Hanafin.
On and on it went. Until finally, with the hacks on the brink of exhaustion and the handlers on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the Taoiseach came out.
He apologised for being hoarse. He attacked Fine Gael for playing dirty politics. His grim-faced Minister colleagues flanking him.
Then, the question that made his fellow politicians wince. “Taoiseach, are you worried about your drinking, do you ever think you drink too much?”
There was a low hum of disapproval from the TDs and Senators. “Shame!” said one. But Cowen silenced them with a wave of his hand. He was happy to take the question. And he answered – “everything in moderation, including moderation”.
That moment evoked another electric scene involving a Fianna Fáil leader – when Bertie Ahern, new leader, was asked about his marital status. His supporters loudly booed, but Ahern silenced them and took the question.
They cheered his answer and cheered him from the room. Cowen was cheered too, but not half as sincerely.
A little hoarse and a storm in a stirrup cup? Or the beginning of the end? Time will tell.