Cowen's overdue 'state of the nation' was worth wait

 

INSIDE POLITICS:A RECURRING issue during Brian Cowen’s three years as taoiseach was whether or not he should give a “state of the nation” speech. The general consensus was that he ought to do so.

There was a widespread view that he needed to explain the economic situation to the people in plain language. The argument went that, if he did so, he would enhance support for the tough decisions he was obliged to take.

The news media were constantly on the look-out for Cowen’s version of the Gettysburg Address. There was an occasional moment when he dipped his toe in the oratorical water, cast aside the PR-speak and gave vent to his true feelings and the reality of the challenge Ireland was facing. But he never really stepped up to the plate and gave us the full-on, “here I stand, I can do no other”, rationale for his actions.

Well, what do you know? Now the former taoiseach has gone and delivered an 8,400-word analysis setting out in some detail the massive problems that confronted him as well as the rationale behind his responses to them, along with his thoughts on the crisis in the euro zone.

He chose to do so last month at a location very far from home: Georgetown University in Washington DC. By sweet delicious irony, the speech was given at the university’s BMW Centre for German and European Studies which was founded in 1990 with a grant from the German government, supplemented later by funds from the eponymous automobile company based in Munich.

Although there have been news reports on Cowen’s lecture, which is entitled “The euro: From Crisis to Resolution? Some Reflections from Ireland on the Road Thus Far”, you really need to read the full text.

(See irishtimes.comor georgetown.edu.)

If his many critics and few supporters do nothing else this weekend, they should seek it out. This is a different Brian Cowen from the one we met during his unhappy and ultimately doomed attempt to lead this State from 2008 to 2011.

Cowen’s predecessor Bertie Ahern was famous for his malapropisms and one of the best ones was his observation that: “With hindsight, we all have 50-50 vision.” Cowen’s Georgetown oration has more hindsight than you could shake a stick at.

When Cowen became taoiseach in May 2008, there was a good deal of optimistic comment on his ability to explain things in clear, concise and, above all, blunt terms. The best boy in the Fianna Fáil class and its most forthright speaker had come to the fore.

Sadly, this side of his personality was not greatly in evidence during his term of office. The unexpected crisis seemed to send him into shock, leaving him unable or unwilling to communicate the scale of the disaster and the necessary rescue measures to the electorate.

Cowen makes a strong case in his Washington lecture that the decisions he took were unavoidable and correct, even including the controversial bank guarantee. He makes the point that this had overwhelming political support at the time.

Indeed, it is worth recalling that Fine Gael supported the move. So, too, did Sinn Féin, although they don’t like to be reminded of the fact, and changed tack in due course. Labour has made much of being the only party to oppose the guarantee although one cannot avoid the suspicion that it would have taken a different stance had there been any possibility that the government’s proposed legislation might be defeated.

The lecture was given just a day after Cowen’s successor Enda Kenny presented the annual bowl of shamrock to President Obama in a different part of the US capital. The former taoiseach is apologetic and even contrite about his own responsibility for what went wrong. But he also provides a fascinating perspective on international capitalism in crisis, as seen from the inside.

The hurricane that swept through the world financial system is portrayed here in frightening detail. Cowen would never be seriously characterised as a socialist, but he makes a strong case for a more orderly and better-regulated economic order instead of the anarchic greed and avarice that brought us to our present sorry state.

His lecture implicitly poses questions about the viability of the nation-state in the present era of high-tech transactions that take little notice of borders. It also places a huge question-mark over the future of “auction politics” whereby parties, including his own, have competed to ingratiate themselves with an electorate that has learnt to vote according to its pocket-book and local or sectional concerns rather than the broader national interest.

The former taoiseach is clearly aware that he, personally, cannot be let off the hook although he makes a strong case for a change of political culture in Ireland and elsewhere.

Governments and other elected representatives must have the courage to impress upon the citizenry that more substantial funds have to be put aside in the good times for a rainy day even if it means spending less on social improvements, however desirable they may be.

The thrust of his remarks is that democracy itself is in crisis, not just the economy and the banking system. Having been part of the problem, Brian Cowen has been trying to become part of the solution.

Although even the mention of his name still arouses the ire of many people, the lessons he has learnt so dearly deserve wide attention.

Cowen’s remarks are dispassionate in tone and he has clearly been reading the academic literature on the crisis, even quoting the views of three Italian economists: we were all wondering what he was up to since he left politics. Now we know – he was compiling a belated state of the nation address.

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