Taoiseach Brian Cowen has rejected criticisms of his performance in a radio interview broadcast from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party conference in Galway this morning.
He described a post on Twtter this morning by Fine Gael’s transport spokesman Simon Coveney, in which he claimed the Taoiseach sounded “between drunk and hungover” in the interview, as a "new low in politics".
Mr Cowen, who attended the Fianna Fáil party dinner at the Ardilaun Hotel last night, was interviewed by RTÉ's Morning Ireland at 8.50am today. He was confronted by the media following his interview, during which his voice was shaky and he confused the Croke Park Agreement with the Good Friday Agreement.
"Radio programmes and the internet are alive with the belief that you were either drunk or hungover on the Morning Ireland interview," said one reporter.
"Absolutely not. That's ridiculous. It's not true at all," said Mr Cowen. "I'm sorry, we had a good conversation with [Morning Ireland presenter] Cathal Mac Coille as usual. Really, that's uncalled for."
At a press conference at the end of the two-day party meeting this afternoon, Mr Cowen hit out at Mr Coveney, saying his comment was a “new low” in Irish politics and was politically motivated.
Mr Coveney's post read: "God, what an uninspiring interview by Taoiseach this morning. He sounded half way between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested."
The Taoiseach said this was "very unfortunate".
"Simon Coveney is a person for whom I had some respect as a person and as a colleague,” Mr Cowen said. “I think it is an appalling and unfounded assertion that he has made. I dealt with the interview with Cathal MacCoille, as I always would, and gave full and frank answers to the best of my ability. As I said, I have a hoarseness in my throat which I apologise for.”
Mr Coveney's comment was "obviously politically motivated and orchestrated" and was "pathetic and pitiful"," he said. “I’m very sorry that Deputy Coveney would resort to that sort of petty personality-type politics which I find disgraceful."
Asked if he was worried he might be drinking too much, Mr Cowen replied that he was not saying “moderation in everything”.
Mr Cowen said he was putting the matter behind him. “We have a job to do. We are not in this country anymore to do what passes for politics as usual. This country has serious challenges to face,” he said. “We have a Government that is going to involve in delivering for this country the policies that are necessary. The people themselves realise the adjustments that have to be made and we are committed and determined to doing that. That is our only focus.”
Mr Coveney had earlier denied on RTÉ Radio's News At One that he was trying to score political points and insisted he stood by his comments. "I was frustrated and angry after the Taoiseach's interview that he would treat the country the way his did this morning in the context of the interview."
Speaking on RTÉ's Pat Kenny Show this morning, Fine Gael finance spokesman Michael Noonan claimed the interview raised concerns over the Taoiseach's leadership of the country.
“He was uninspiring. He certainly didn’t sound like man who was going to lead the country out of the problems it’s now in," Mr Noonan said. “There was a feeling this morning - and it went across political lines, and it wasn't political point-scoring - that this can't continue, the game is up.”
Senior Fianna Fáil party members mounted a robust defence of their party leader throughout the day.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said he was just hoarse. “I think, from a content perspective, I had no difficulty with the interview at all,” said Mr Martin. “Of course, the Taoiseach was very hoarse during the interview, that was self-evident and very clear. But it seems to me that that seems to be what the issue is about, that the Taoiseach was hoarse.”
Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey said he was shocked that Mr Cowen’s performance was the issue rather than Government policy. “I thought that the content was very good. The Taoiseach dealt with very serious issues," the Minister said. "I’m absolutely astounded that we’re now here doing interviews about the tone of his voice than the actual content."
Mr Dempsey said there was a social side to parliamentary party meetings. “I think everybody is entitled to some socialisation [sic]," he said.
"I'm not going to start being a babysitter for the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach is a big boy, he's well able to be able to handle himself."
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said the Taoiseach has problems with nasal congestion. "I think that is well known and there are times when that does affect him," he said.
Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin conceded the Taoiseach sounded “hoarse, congested and groggy”, but said he was “spot on” in his comments. “But it’s not about the way he tells them, it’s what he’s saying.”
Fianna Fáil TD and former minister Mary O’Rourke accepted Mr Cowen's "voice was nasal and hoarse” in the interview. “But apart from that, I think he was quite forcible.”
However, Labour’s Roisin Shorthall said the interview was “one of the most inept and unconvincing ever given by a Taoiseach in the history of the State” and called for a general election.
She said it would raise “serious alarm bells” when the country was facing such huge economic problems. “The point of no return has now been reached. This situation cannot be allowed to continue with the country drifting in to even deeper crisis.”
Sinn Féin's Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the issue was not the Taoiseach’s physical state, but the state of the country’s finances. “He defended his Government’s plan to cut at least €3 billion in the forthcoming Budget, devastating health and education and other public services.”
The story was picked up by several news organisations around the globe. The BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Fox News, MSNBC and Spain's ABC all reported the Taoiseach's denial of being drunk or hungover during the interview.
However, French daily Le Monde stuck to economics and only reported the €3 billion Budget cuts mentioned in the Morning Ireland interview.