Fintan Drury: Brian Cowen put country first, party second

The former taoiseach's friend and adviser on Cowen’s troubled final years in politics

 Taoiseach Brian Cowen  leaving Government Buildings in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Brian Cowen leaving Government Buildings in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Brian Cowen and I are friends. Through much of his political life I was also his private counsel, so any analysis I might offer of his career in public office can hardly be seen as objective. It is, however, based on seeing at close quarters how his career developed and then ended prematurely.

Early in his time as taoiseach his near obsession with detail became a cause of concern to his inner sanctum, in particular Gerry Steadman, who’d worked with him from his time in health; Joe Lennon, his chief-of-staff; and Peter Clinch, who took leave of absence from the economics department of UCD to be his policy adviser.

Fintan Drury: ‘Brian Cowen’s leadership was likened to a captain going down with his ship.’
Fintan Drury: ‘Brian Cowen’s leadership was likened to a captain going down with his ship.’

In 2008 I pushed the newly-minted leader to draw on external advice to help address the pressing socioeconomic issues facing the country. I wanted him to build a macro-narrative, something that was always alien to him.

While I felt that an external perspective would help him establish a more visionary approach, he was inherently cautious. Some of this was simply his aversion to the very idea, but he was also concerned that anyone involved could for a moment think there might be some advantage for them in being asked to assist.

I pushed him on it, certain Brian needed help in viewing the economic situation through a wider lens; eventually he agreed. It was tentative, explorative, with just one meeting planned to see if it was of value, and the group would be very small.

Alan Gray of Indecon was an already trusted adviser and we quickly agreed on Gary McGann, who was chief executive of Smurfit, a man we both knew to be of integrity with a breadth of business experience. Though they hardly knew each other, I recommended Sean FitzPatrick then who, to my judgment, was smart, had a social conscience and a breadth of vision. He was, effectively, my pick.

Interpretation

Much later events meant that the group’s one meeting with Cowen, in early July 2008, was to take on a construct that bore no relation to its purpose or its conduct. That is, in fact, something of an understatement. What prompted a dramatically different interpretation was that, in FitzPatrick’s account of the demise of Anglo (The FitzPatrick Tapes, Penguin 2011), the meeting was referenced when it had no relation whatsoever to the bank’s business.

Banking had never been discussed. I first learned of the meeting being made public when, just before its publication, FitzPatrick informed me he had written a book with business journalists Tom Lyons and Brian Carey. He had to have known that including that meeting could only suggest an agenda that was completely at odds with its actual purpose and indeed the origins of the group.

It was obvious that, as a consequence, it would damage an already embattled taoiseach. With the narrative that account helped to fuel it’s noteworthy that then Trinity University economics professor Patrick Honohan, later governor of the Central Bank, explained that a meeting he had in or around the same time with finance minister Brian Lenihan had been about broad fiscal policy but “not the banks”.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD after a press conference in Government Buildings where they announced that the Lisbon Treaty had been passed. Photograph: Maxwells
Taoiseach Brian Cowen after a press conference in Government Buildings where they announced that the Lisbon Treaty had been passed. Photograph: Maxwells

The relationship between Cowen and his finance minister was fraught. But when Lenihan was struck by a grave illness, resolving the economic issue became a great deal more difficult. This less than positive pivotal relationship in any government would have been troublesome in normal times, but with an emerging financial and economic crisis it was politically catastrophic.

It would have been hard for anyone to cope with the enormity of the crisis, but the country’s new leader became weighed down by it. Over the next 18 months, as Ireland slid inexorably into an economic abyss, Brian [Cowen] was to become more isolated or at least experience a profound sense of isolation. There were elements of his schedule and his lifestyle which were accentuating the difficulty of being in office at such a challenging time.

*****

Cowen might have been taoiseach sooner or perhaps never had he listened to my bellyaching about Bertie Ahern. I was an outsider, a floating voter, someone who believed in his friend but not necessarily in Fianna Fáil. I was also untroubled by realpolitik so, while he valued my friendship and counsel, Brian regularly railed at what he perceived as my disinterest in Fianna Fáil’s way of doing business.

While argument was our constant companion, normally my generally contrarian view was defeated by his intellectual firepower or as often simply diluted by his commitment to the party’s demands. Loyalty was integral to that, and while I subscribe to the general principle, I also saw it as an inhibitor.

I think that my outlook and the resolve with which I sometimes offered my opinions was both part of what he valued, but also drove him mad, especially when we so frequently rowed about the leadership of the party and the country.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern joking with Tánaiste Brian Cowen at Government Buildings on April 2nd, 2008. Photograph: Frank Miller
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern joking with Tánaiste Brian Cowen at Government Buildings on April 2nd, 2008. Photograph: Frank Miller

From the moment doubts had first circulated about some of Bertie Ahern’s dealings I started to niggle Brian about it, and while, in the earliest part of this engagement, he was disinterested, the general election of 2007 gave him pause for thought.

Ahern, for long an electoral talisman, was by then becoming a problem for Fianna Fáil; so much so that it would most likely have lost it that election were it not for Brian making some critically important interventions.

Issues around the probity of Ahern at the Mahon Tribunal were to the fore and opinion polls consistently pointed to the real possibility that Fianna Fáil would be defeated. Then, with 10 days to go in the campaign, Cowen led a dramatic electoral response, checking Fine Gael’s run at government and securing a new mandate for Fianna Fáil.

Events would prove it to be a poisoned political chalice, not the mantle of government that he had succeeded in prising away from Enda Kenny and Fine Gael’s grasp. Ahern remained at the helm of both the party and the country.

Transactions

It was March 2008 when events turned and no further prompting was needed for Brian to move against Ahern. He was overseas when the taoiseach’s former PA, Grainne Carruth, gave evidence to the Mahon tribunal that blew away whatever credence remained around the management of certain financial transactions.

Carruth’s testimony changed everything; the evidence of wrongdoing stunned Brian but he was as shocked by what she had been put through in full public gaze. When we spoke that day he expressed shock that someone who was effectively in service to Ahern had been left to face such public humiliation.

It was anathema to him that anyone in a position of responsibility would leave a colleague as exposed as the taoiseach had left his former assistant. Brian always believed senior people must be prepared to take responsibility for their actions, something he was to display at the end of his own political career.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen pictured in his office in Government Buildings in October 2010. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Taoiseach Brian Cowen pictured in his office in Government Buildings in October 2010. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

It was when the two men met a week on that Brian advised Ahern he needed to resign.

Almost a decade later, when I appeared in front of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, an issue was raised about that meeting. Ahead of my appearance I had chosen not to read the testimony of others for fear my account could be influenced, in part, by that of others. It was a deliberate decision.

At one point Eoghan Murphy TD asked me if Brian Cowen and I had been in touch before Brian’s meeting with Ahern on March 27th, 2008. I confirmed that we had met when he was on his way to the meeting and also that I’d spoken with him directly after it had ended. I had not been aware that in his account to the inquiry a fortnight earlier, Ahern had said their meeting had been about the banks, including Anglo Irish. This is what had prompted Murphy’s interest.

I was still an Anglo Irish Bank board member at that time and now, in my testimony, I’d confirmed that I had had lunch with Cowen on his way to his meeting with the taoiseach, and that he had called me immediately upon its conclusion.

This appeared completely at odds with my insistence that Brian and I never discussed issues where there could be a conflict of interest; this evidence confirmed that he and I had met before and spoken after a meeting he’d had with the taoiseach which Ahern had, in his evidence, said was about banking.

Until then I had no idea what Ahern had testified. The conflict in our accounts was pretty stark, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t both accurate. I knew that banking was not the reason Cowen had called the taoiseach to arrange to meet. Brian had asked me to prepare a briefing note setting out the reasons why Ahern had to resign, which was the only issue we’d discussed over lunch and it was the only issue Brian called me about after their meeting had ended.

******

Brian Cowen’s political career ended abruptly. It’s extraordinary that someone with an unparalleled span across senior Cabinet positions as well as being taoiseach was so damaged he chose not to stand for re-election when his government fell. That has to represent as momentous a professional fall as any.

It is for qualified historians to analyse his contribution to Irish public life. But as a close friend and an admirer, someone who was also a general counsel for much of his time in public office, I’ve little doubt where the balance of any assessment will lie.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen photographed before leaving a press conference in the Merrion Hotel where he announced that he is stepping down as leader, in 2011. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Taoiseach Brian Cowen photographed before leaving a press conference in the Merrion Hotel where he announced that he is stepping down as leader, in 2011. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

In time a considered assessment of his leadership will show that in the midst of an economic crisis of unprecedented scale, hard decisions were taken without a thought of anything other than the public interest.

One former senior colleague, not of Fianna Fáil as it happens, likened his leadership to the captain going down with the ship: it may not be the greatest accolade, but facing what he was, Brian put the country first, his party a distant second. And as for his own career, he did nothing that would have made it any more salvageable.

It may be worth noting that the ship, while badly damaged, didn’t sink and that its new captain, Enda Kenny, found on taking command that it was not just seaworthy but, in large measure through the grim determination of his predecessor, had been set on the right course towards a return to calmer waters.

See-Saw is published in hardback by Ballpoint Press

Fintan Drury is a former journalist and communications adviser. He is a former chairman of Paddy Power Betfair, Mainstream Renewable Power and the governing authority of RTÉ. He was previously a non-executive director of Anglo Irish Bank