A very Irish hangover


What did Brian Cowen's 'Morning Ireland' interview tell us about his suitability for the public role of Taoiseach? And what did the ensuing media storm say about Ireland's attitude to alcohol and provacy? Kathy Sheridancanvasses opinion

‘WHAT WOULD IT take to put an end to those rumours about the Taoiseach? Pictures of him at a bar with a Kaliber or a non-alcoholic Beck’s in his hand.”

This exchange on the politics.ie website took place well over a year before the Fine Gael frontbencher Simon Coveney tweeted the view that Brian Cowen “sounded halfway between drunk and hung-over” during a Morning Irelandinterview on RTÉ Radio 1 this week. It’s more than a year, too, since the Sunday Independentcarried an interview with the Taoiseach in which he was asked about his drinking. “That’s not an issue at all, to be honest,” Cowen said. “I relax now and again with friends. I try and do the normal things that normal people do. It’s overstated, the drinking thing.”

And it’s more than a year since Ryan Tubridy, on his first Late Late Show, used the Sunday newspaper’s interview as a route into asking the same question of his first guest: “The Sunday Independenttalked about you drinking too much. Do you drink too much?” Which elicited the unsurprising reply: “No, I don’t, not at all.” So where did the rumours come from? “I’m not responsible for them . . . I work hard. I never at any time did anything, when doing public duties, in an inappropriate way. Like yourself or members of the audience, there are times at the weekend when you can relax with friends for a couple of drinks. That’s all that’s involved. And I’m trying to be authentic and true to myself and run a normal life and talk to people and be involved with people.”

“Do these questions annoy you?” asked Tubridy. “I probably rebel against the political correctness that seems to dominate, where people are trying to be caricatured or stereotyped all the time,” Cowen said. “I mean, people who know me know that stereotype isn’t me. But I was trying to be my natural self and to behave properly, of course, in my public duties and also to be able to relax with friends if I can.”

Whereupon the audience applauded furiously and Tubridy relaxed again. The Late Latehost was having his cake and eating it, of course. It’s a common strategy: ask the hard question while blaming someone else for having the poor taste to raise it in the first place. But the point is that the hazard lights were already flashing a year ago: here were the country’s most prestigious chat show and its biggest-selling Sunday broadsheet both raising questions about the Taoiseach’s drinking, to his face.

Add those to the tenacious rumour mill that has revolved around Brian Cowen and some of his inner circle for several years and it’s obvious that the week’s coruscating flare-up is not merely the spawn of one speculative Opposition tweet.

The irony is that the self-same “political correctness” against which the Taoiseach rebels has been the main buffer between him and full-on confrontation with these rumours – that and most decent people’s reluctance to drag private sensitivities into the public arena.

Sean O’Rourke, of RTÉ Radio 1’s lunchtime news programme, wondered whether anyone had actually asked the Taoiseach how much he had drunk the night before (one newspaper claimed the figure was eight pints of Carlsberg). David Davin-Power’s reply – after a surprised pause – was that they were “too decorous to put such a bald question to the Taoiseach”. Anyway, he added, the evidence was that he was “not impaired in any way”.

People who are usually happy to speak out about Cowen and his shortcomings were far less comfortable about doing so when it came to discussing his drinking habits. This is less about Cowen’s power than the fact that he is widely regarded as a “decent man” and that his drink habits are an intensely personal matter.

Which is a classic, humane Irish response, though muddled this week by the fact that he took his late-night exigencies into the public domain. But Irish ambivalence and relativism about drink consumption are also a factor. Nobody wants to look holier-than-thou.

And after all the ruaille buaille, it’s hard to find anyone, friend or foe, who listened back to the interview or read the transcript and found it as incoherent as advertised. “You would barely recognise his voice – I’ve sounded like that and I know where I was the night before. But I didn’t think there was any more incoherence there than the usual,” says a consultant who heard the broadcast live. “It was the same sullen tone that he uses to every interviewer.”

A level-headed Co Offaly supporter, who played the interview later, saw nothing wrong with Cowen’s responses. “Cowen was just himself, with all the guff that we fell for in 2007, but I could see very little in the way of slippage . . . a few muffled words, maybe, but the cogency was all there,” he says.

“I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Even the slip about the Good Friday Agreement was immediately corrected: it wasn’t that he didn’t realise what he’d said. There may have been a hoarseness . . . but it’s not a hanging offence.”

Another constituent of Cowen’s, who is fond of him personally if not politically, was listening on the way to work. “I thought, Oh God, he sounds like he just crawled out of bed. He was able to answer the questions, yes. But my next thought was, Why didn’t you just stay in bed? It wasn’t respectful. And I would certainly have expected something a bit more state-of-the-nation.”

Also listening live, a long-time metropolitan ally of Cowen’s knew immediately that the party leader “had been singing” the night before. “My first thought was, That’s 12 pints, 20 Major and six verses of The Offaly Rover. I listened to it again, and there was a slur in his voice . . . He could have been reading the Bible, but the fact is that he was audibly and verbally hung-over . . . No, it’s not just a question of style over substance. It’s that the style has drawn attention to the problem. The substance was just another regurgitation of the same old guff with all the cliches – nothing negative but, equally, nothing new in it either.

A respected sociological critic is torn between sympathy for the man himself and a sense of deeper national humiliation. “At a human level it’s very hard not to feel sorry for him, and it would be a very, very sad day for Ireland to lose that sense of humanity . . . And that’s particularly the case when you read about the details of the night: the singing, the music, the mimicry, the stories. It’s vintage Cowen, that kind of Irish craic. It’s kind of part of Irish life.

“And I really felt there was something poignant about him saying jokingly to journalists not to get him into trouble by reporting his performance. Then, the next morning, he had that question from Ursula Halligan , and there was that look of shock on his face . . . I would say he felt an utter sense of betrayal.”

The same critic is concerned that the reaction to the interview will accelerate a trend towards an American-style judgmentalism about the private lives of public figures. “It’s one thing people saying he sounded drunk, in gossip,” she says. “But you then had a prominent Opposition spokesman who gave it legs, gave it legitimacy. There was something unseemly about that, and I do have reservations about it.

“It’s like in a personal relationship – if the other side does something outrageous and you want to say something awful on radio, you might feel better for a short while, but it does kind of lower the bar. I think at some later stage there will be a lot of dismay that this gives huge energy to the tabloids to do even more of this stuff.”

But for all that, she adds, the Taoiseach brought much of it on himself. “He failed the Irish test, by which you can have a couple of pints but you will still be able to get up and do your job. Most Irish people won’t want this prim, puritanical thing of going to bed at nine o’clock, but what they do expect is that you can get up and do your job.

“And he failed that by any standard . . . He did sound pretty rough; he sounded exhausted. I’d believe he had eight pints. The fact is that he wasn’t able to do his job properly. He sounded like he’d had a long night. You wouldn’t last in a private company if you turned up looking ragged at nine o’clock.”

But he was able to answer the questions, surely? “You can’t say the tone of voice doesn’t matter. It’s part of a holistic presentation. He left himself vulnerable when he turned up on the radio like that, because that was bringing his private life into the public arena.”

The story’s viral spread into the online international media was the final blow, she says wearily. “That’s a disaster. It’s painful enough that we’ve fallen so far, from a time when people were beating a path to our door to see how we were pulling off this economic miracle, to reading the Wall Street Journalop-ed in recent days saying that Greece is dying and Ireland is already dead. That’s incredibly damaging, and I know it’s having an effect on those going out to drum up financing for Ireland. That’s all being quoted back at them. Our people are down. Predatory forces are out there watching and waiting.

“There are reservations already about how much we drink in Ireland, and here we are with headlines about the drunken Irish. It’s like all we need now is the pigs in the parlour to be right back where we started.”

The problem for Brian Cowen is that the incident has crystallised almost unacknowledged fears even among his most devoted supporters. “He’s a low-key, modest person who doesn’t put himself forward and, unfortunately, doesn’t realise the dignity of the office. It requires a lot more than he wants to give it,” says the Co Offaly supporter.

He recalls that shortly after being promoted to Taoiseach, Cowen attended a funeral in Tullamore, where he took his usual self-effacing place at the back of a long queue of sympathisers. “But he was the Taoiseach at that stage. One would have expected him to arrive by car, say a quick hello to people in the queue, so they’d see he hadn’t got above himself, then go straight into the funeral parlour.

“I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t bring the dignity of the office, without the pomp . . . He’s really a number-two person, more a county councillor in approach than an MP or leader. He doesn’t sound leaderly. There’s nothing wrong with being number two. Some people are just not cut out for the principal role on the stage.”

Cowen has inured himself against advice and advisers, according to the same county man. “I am disappointed that he doesn’t communicate his message, that he can’t relate to the media,” he says. “He should be seen to be virtually a Pioneer to win back the view that he’s not a drunkard. His privacy has certainly been breached, but he’s probably brought it upon himself with the nature of his exposure. And some pubs here are keen to exploit their association with him . . .

“You can’t tell him to be good. He listens to no one. He has few confidants here. He has cronies, but none that are his equals. He’s acutely aware that he’s on a short fuse, lifespan-wise. His father died at 52 . . . He suffers from sleep apnoea . . . And he’s under siege.”

The metropolitan ally echoes this. “Can you imagine a handler saying at 2am, ‘Listen, boss, it’s time to hit the sack’? He’d be totally ignored. And the Bar Lobby would tell the handler where to go anyway. Cowen’s humanity, his ordinariness, is probably his downfall. He hasn’t been able to move up from it. He’s still a county councillor in spirit.”

But weren’t you an ardent supporter of his for the leadership? “Just because a guy is a good footballer doesn’t mean he’ll be a good coach or a good manager . . . It’s about the stage of development the team is at. He picked the Cabinet on the basis of good times, not to do a life-saving mission. He didn’t change; the circumstances did.”

All the more reason, then, to take sage advice. But a regular comment is that Cowen stopped listening to PR advice – which he dismisses as spin – a long time ago, and prides himself on it. Some years ago Olivia O’Leary described him as “an arrogant young man who chooses to behave like a curmudgeonly relic of the past – he’s bright, ambitious and decent, but he hasn’t yet learned that leaders can’t behave like corner boys”.

The upshot is that a man who is privately witty, engaging, bright and decent – “and is never, ever, ever nasty with a few drinks on him”, adds a local political opponent – comes across as lethargic, turgid and contemptuous in public. One Cowen supporter accuses the people of seeking a Messiah, a “celebrity leader”, but the truth is probably fairer and simpler: what they long for is clarity and a sense of being in firm, safe hands. Cowen’s determination to preserve his “normal”, “authentic” self above the need to present an appropriate public face – and even the odd huggable soundbite – lies at the heart of this week’s fiasco.

“On Tuesday morning he saw himself as just speaking to another pesky journalist,” says the ally. “He didn’t see himself as addressing the nation. Morning Irelandis not an appearance with some 2FM shock jock. You’re talking to 400,000 people, from the top down.”

The usual criticism from journalists about public figures is that they are handled or managed out of all recognition. Brian Cowen is the exception.

“There is a glib tendency to dismiss public-relations advice and communications activity as superficial fluff and an unnecessary cost,” says Mark Brennock, a journalist turned director of public affairs with Murray Consultants. “But a single bad media outing can damage your reputation internationally and at tremendous cost, as we saw this week.”

Is it too late for Brian Cowen? “I think it’s the beginning of the end for him,” says the sociological critic. “I think he’s already crushed and has been for a long time. It kind of reminds me of the end of a marriage, or the point in a job where there have been major disagreements and people start saying really personal things, where everyone knows really that it’s over. This is a kind of body blow, and it’s given them a credence, a platform.”