The man who wasn't there
Even as his political career crumbled, and with party rivals probing his wounds, Brian Cowen couldn’t shake off the tired cliches, defensive persona and sheer bad luck that have defined his time as Taoiseach
ON THURSDAY EVENING he stood in his lovely office, with the flags of the Republic and the EU behind him, his pale face set and strained, impatient at the impertinence of Bryan Dobson’s questions, barely suppressing an explosive frustration. It was impossible not to feel a surge of sympathy for a proud, good man so publicly tethered to a time bomb.
Even still, as the offices of state trembled in anticipation of a heave, even as his mortal political wounds were being clinically probed by his own storied loyalists, Brian Cowen was unable to rise above the tired old script.
“No, I haven’t considered resigning . . . I am now engaged in internal discussion with my own party colleagues . . . I must recognise the concerns within the organisation regarding the election . . .”
Then the lights went out. RTÉ’s connection to Government Buildings went down. A technical malfunction? Or had he pulled the plug? The episode was almost a metaphor for Brian Cowen’s two and a half year stewardship as Taoiseach: the contempt for the messenger; the obsession with internal party considerations; the blindness to the concerns of a vast, troubled audience behind the loathed media; all punctuated by the sudden, dark, desperately unlucky intervention.
When the link was re-established Dobson asked how he could persuade his party that he was the best person to lead them. Cowen could have delivered a passionate, direct appeal over the heads of his party rivals. Instead he replied irritably that he would be “having a discussion with colleagues and I cannot say until I sit down with them . . .”
What was the time frame? Like the scorpion with the frog, he couldn’t help himself. “We don’t run the organisation on the basis of what you say in the media,” he replied. He had to strike. It’s what he does. No matter that it is born of self-delusion and ends in mutual destruction.
No doubt there were loyal party members watching on Thursday who reckoned he had played a blinder, had stuck it to the Dublin media again. Above all, hadn’t he survived? Confounded his critics again? But, like the scorpion, it’s just what he does. It requires no great will, scheme or energy. Nearly 20 years ago he coined the phrase “If in doubt, leave them out” to express his contempt for the party’s PD partners. It was Cowen’s bull-headed, belated call to arms in 2007 that persuaded many voters that only Fianna Fáil had the strength to manage the economy. He survived two no- confidence votes in two years.
The trouble is that for many citizens, those years have been among the most traumatising in living memory. When the old guard rallied around Cowen on Thursday, imploring him not to throw in the towel “after all we’ve been through – for a bloody golf game”, in the words of one, they were missing the point again.
For many of the public that “golf game” crystallised everything that was rotten about the State: the golden circles; the alpha-male covens; the lack of concern for the optics; the blank space in the diary; the drip-drip of information; the routine dismissal of legitimate questions as political gamesmanship – all of which led us to where we are, a place best represented by the devastating image of the IMF’s Ajai Chopra walking past a beggar on St Stephen’s Green.
It’s pertinent to remember that when the Government finally woke up to the threat of losing the Lisbon referendum and an uneasy alliance reigned among the parties, it was Cowen who almost put a spanner in the works by declaring that the Opposition wasn’t working as hard as Fianna Fáil.
“I think there are occasions, in the country’s interest, where the Taoiseach will have to resist the temptation of giving the Opposition parties a kick every time he sees us,” remarked Eamon Gilmore. Cowen chose to ignore that piece of advice, an omission that would gain significance as time went on. Political junkies and bare-knuckle fighters may cherish the notion of a tough and bruising political operator.
The rest of the population has learned painfully that such traits really only count when applied for their benefit, not merely for political survival. Eighty-seven per cent of them, of a 10,000-strong mobile-phone poll on Liveline on Thursday, believed Cowen should step down now. The enduring mystery of Brian Cowen is that he could never lift that famous fighting spirit or command of language to inspire and lead a people craving safe hands and respectful engagement. He used terms such as activation measures, progressity and automaticity, internalising, conflating and subvening.
When the world’s media tuned in to a Dáil speech in the expectation that he would address the financial crisis in the autumn, they heard only robotic assurances and impenetrable Cowenspeak about the “front-loading of consolidation”. He only left behind the Civil Service jargon when he was defending himself or his party. It meant he was capable of doing it. He talked but never appeared to listen, however, even while his Government was making decisions of immense consequence, knowing there was profound confusion and little public support. It seemed the aim was not to engage in meaningful debate but to get across the idea that there was nothing to be debated.
That autocratic attitude was spawned either of arrogance and too many years in power or of a disrespect for the people’s intelligence. Either way it found its apotheosis in “Garglegate”, the infamous Morning Irelandinterview after a late night at the Galway think-in last September. For many the problem lay not in the “hoarseness” or “nasal congestion” but in the fact that, when these were stripped away for an interview that ranked as a state-of-the-nation address at a critical time in the nation’s history, the leader was saying nothing that was distinguishable from every Cowenspeak interview he had given for the previous two years.
In recent days he has even had to take lectures on communications from Bertie Ahern, the man in the News of the Worldcupboard. Cowen should have kept the public informed about the EU-IMF bailout, said Ahern.
“These aren’t state secrets, after all . . . I always took the view, and maybe it’s a difference in style, that you go out there every day and you talk to the media and do your bit . . . When I went the guys took a different view . . . They wouldn’t go out very often and do the daily doorsteps . . . If you ask me, my view is you’re better doing it my way, but he opted not to do that,” he said.
Cowen, by contrast, had commented that Ahern’s resignation marked the end of an era, describing Ahern as the consummate politician of his generation. It’s what Cowen does: that dogged, sightless loyalty to the party and to the tarnished leaders before him, a loyalty that defines his ultimate political philosophy, to the point of self-destruction and even the loss of his beloved party’s electability.
How could he have hoped for credibility and authority while he refused to question their legacy? His excuse for an apology on Ryan Tubridy’s first Late Late Showabout the sorry pass to which the party had led the country – “If people want me to apologise, I apologise in the event that people think I did something purposely wrong” – was eloquent testimony to his unwillingness to listen to wiser voices.
For an intelligent man, with Fianna Fáil stamped in his marrow, this week must be akin to Armageddon.
It is almost trite now to recall that glorious sunny day outside Dáil Éireann in May 2008 when he was elected Taoiseach. It seemed to mark a turning of the axis, a new dawn for Irish politics, where substance would replace style and gruffer, timeless rural values would supplant the Westlife bling.
He came with sterling credentials, the first person in the history of the State to fill the four main government offices of taoiseach, tánaiste, foreign affairs and finance. To be sure, aside from that ineradicable party loyalty there was little evidence of convictions in his previous high offices. And the top job had fallen into his lap, without contesting an election as leader, which later would begin to look like a weaker mandate. But back then he had the nation in his hand. They wanted, needed, to believe.
An exultant Offaly poured into the capital on the day of his elevation, wrapping tricolour feather boas around gardaí and dancing to The Offaly Rover. He was greatly loved by his county people, revered by backbenchers, regarded as decent and a man of integrity, even by opposition figures. In the exuberant crowd outside Leinster House Fr Tony Egan, the Augustinian prior proudly kitted out in an Offaly shirt, talked about “huge, huge pride tinged with a little sadness, because [the Cowen family’s] lives are never going to be the same again”. He was prescient. Brian Cowen did not see a day’s luck thereafter.
Under his stewardship the Government developed an uncanny ability to turn bad to worse, to transform a banking crisis into a sovereign-debt crisis and a sovereign-debt crisis into a full-blown crisis of Irish democracy. What began with Seánie and Fingers and Bertie and Charlie ended up with Ajai Chopra and Olli Rehn. In the meantime all the roads that could have been taken – early refusal of the pay rise, dealing with quangos and cronyism, delivering ethics legislation, the chance to usher in an era of honesty, openness, a new trust in authority – were bypassed.
Imagine the difference they would have made when the hard times began to bite. But within six months of that great May celebration in 2008 a committed Cowen supporter was already confiding that Cowen had surrounded himself with cronies and yes-men – “but none that are his equals” – and had stopped listening to more independent voices. He failed to rise above his modest, low-key persona, telling Tubridy when questioned about his drinking that he was trying to be “authentic and true to myself and run a normal life”.
Given the devastating speed of events after his elevation, was such a “normal life” a realistic, even sensible aspiration? The inauguration of Barack Obama only seven months later was almost cruel in its timing for Cowen. Here, at the new year’s dawning, was a tough, confident, intelligent leader offering harsh medicine and hope, placing Americans’ challenge in the context of their forebears’ toil and sacrifice, articulating with curled lip and righteous gaze the people’s disgust at bankers and lobbyists and their cheerleaders.
Back in Ireland people waited and yearned for that decisiveness, that same independence of mind, someone to brew the bloody medicine and get us to swallow it. But they were equally yearning for a vision beyond the sour, gauche “it’s brutal and will get twice as brutal for years and years” mantra, someone to articulate the hope of a more noble, more sustainable nation at the other end, whenever that might be.
Instead the country lurched from drama to crisis, and last September, in a country already utterly humiliated on the international stage, Brian Cowen’s drinking would rear its head again after the Galway fiasco. “He doesn’t realise the dignity of his office,” sighed an Offaly man. “It requires a lot more than he wants to give it.” A trawl among supporters and opposition people of goodwill at the time yielded a view that he was “a natural number-two person”, never a leader.
Who saw that coming on that lovely May morning only 30 months earlier? “He didn’t change; the circumstances did,” says an ally. “But then, thinking back, who else in Fianna Fáil was up to it?”