Crunch time for Cowen


As the ranks in Fianna Fáil fret that Brian Cowen’s leadership is in crisis, and their futures with it, his performance in the fraught weeks ahead will be crucial to his standing, writes Irish Times political correspondent MARK HENNESSY

OVER THE next few weeks, Taoiseach Brian Cowen has to cut billions of euro off day-to-day public spending, prevent industrial chaos, save Irish banks and get on the right side of the public.

How he handles these challenges – both around the Cabinet table and with the Irish people – will determine the future of his leadership.

It was all so different just eight months ago, as he stood on the back of a truck in the square in Clara, Co Offaly, as he was welcomed home as Taoiseach. Then he was the local boy made good, the best and the brightest of them all.

Today that memory from May 10th has faded. The man with a gilded rise to power is seen as struggling, and once-adoring Fianna Fáil supporters are fretting that his leadership is in crisis, and their futures with it.

Ministers say they detect a greater focus and determination in Cowen since Christmas, a clarity born from a better sight of the dangers ahead. Many backbenchers don’t agree, however, and complain he has distanced himself from them since he took office. “He tends to turn his eyes to the floor if you meet in the corridor,” says one TD.

Everywhere there are demands for leadership, and complaints that Cowen is not offering it. “Marian Finucane and Dunphy and those like them have been demanding action. So have all of you lot. Well, you are going to get it. And you are not going to like it, because it will be hard, and there’ll be many more who won’t like it either,” says one who has been working closely on the public spending cuts package.

SINCE HIS ACCESSION, Cowen has been at the centre of a global economic storm, the worst since the Great Depression and aggravated by Ireland’s own ills. “In the 1980s, people here had years to understand the problems. Now it is having to be done on the run,” says one official.

The pressure of events is blamed for – but does not fully explain – the communications failures that have damaged his reputation as a political heavyweight built up in service under Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern.

The deteriorating economy has forced frequent dealings with the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, but it has led to others in the Cabinet feeling left out.

In Cowen’s eyes, and those of the people close to him, Ministers were last week fully briefed for two hours on the Anglo Irish Bank nationalisation before a decision was made.

However, some Cabinet members take a different view, saying they had no advance warning, no ability to influence events before the point of no return, and, for some, no time even to get to the meeting.

This has happened before. September’s early-morning meeting to hammer out the State guarantee scheme for the banks only involved Cowen and Lenihan.

These complaints irritate the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, who argue that discussions about options are luxuries on such days, because “by then there are no options”. In Cowen’s own eyes, he is a stickler for proper procedures, careful to avoid advance discussion of matters that are the preserve of Cabinet, and determined that Ministers should be free to run their own departments without permanent interference.

“Every Minister is asked to give their opinion. Every one. Issues are debated, not already decided before they come to Cabinet, as happened under Bertie,” says one source.

This does appear to be the case on all bar the major issues, but there is still a sense of a lack of personal interaction between the Taoiseach and his Cabinet colleagues.

Some close to Cowen argue that he is suffering from an unfair comparison with his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, who created an illusion of collegiality.

“A lot of Ministers would know Cowen a lot better than they ever knew Bertie. He isn’t good on the soft soap, and he wouldn’t be good at patting them on the back,” says one source.

There is talk of a Cabinet triumvirate involving Cowen, Lenihan and Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, but it is a fantasy and due more to a failure by Cowen to make others feel included outside of the environment of Cabinet, rather than any desire on his part to exclude Ministers.

“He expects a certain level of intelligence and integrity, and he won’t get into game-playing. He is businesslike, other than with those he is really friendly with,” says another source.

The relationship between Cowen and Lenihan is co-operative, if occasionally subject to inevitable disagreement, and Lenihan bows to Cowen’s political judgment.

THOUGH EXCORIATED FOR moving too slowly, Cowen had invested his hopes since the summer in developing an economic plan for the years ahead, which was worked on from July onwards in frequent but unnoticed meetings with officials and “outsiders with good ideas”. This led to the publication in December of the Government’s economic framework document.

More lately, he has rebuffed demands for speedy, unilateral action, insisting on bringing the trade unions along with him, or, at least, neutering them regarding the cuts and reforms that will be necessary in coming years to restore financial stability.

The strategy explains, perhaps, the actions since December. But it does not explain fully the delay, and lack of direction, before then – even with incomplete Exchequer figures, and Cowen’s own failure to be the one to communicate with a public struggling to come to terms with the end of the Celtic Tiger.

Undoubtedly, his view on social partnership has been formed by his own natural caution – his primary political characteristic – but also by the advice and influence of the State’s highest civil servant, Secretary General to the Government, Dermot McCarthy, who has invested 20 years in creating and nurturing the model.

Lenihan would have moved faster, reflecting his less cautious nature and the Department of Finance’s mindset for quicker action to cut spending immediately. But Lenihan is known to accept that Cowen’s view – that rash action would lead merely to strikes and chaos – is probably right.

“It might still end up that way, because the actions in front of us are hard, but there is a chance that we might get public support this way,” says one person close to the talks.

One Minister says that “the public says it wants leadership, but it wasn’t ready for €2 billion of cuts in October. It may not be ready yet for them.”

If an agreement is not reached for major cuts, or if one is agreed and falls apart later, then Cowen’s strategy and reputation will be in tatters. If it succeeds, then his “long game” may be vindicated. “If you find the solution or at least the beginnings of a solution, then popularity – or at least a certain degree of respect – will follow,” says one adviser.

The Tanaiste Mary Coughlan’s place in all of this has been exaggerated, even if the Taoiseach does trust her. Her “folksy, cheery style”, to quote one colleague, is deemed inappropriate by some and irritating by others. “I don’t think that Coughlan is in the loop in the way that some say, but she doesn’t go out of her way to deny it,” says one Minister.

Cowen respects former Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney, and is careful to keep the Green Party’s John Gormley and Eamon Ryan onside, particularly since the Greens are now needed for the Dáil arithmetic.

“Eamon Ryan is the lubricant, Obama-like, appealing to people’s better natures. He both amuses and impresses the Fianna Fáil lot,” says one who has frequent contact with Fianna Fáil Ministers.

Cowen’s closest friend in Cabinet is the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, who became the repository for backbench complaints about Cowen’s performance before Christmas.

Indeed, many Fianna Fáil TDs desperately wish that the Taoiseach would adopt a few tricks from O’Keeffe, who has made a virtue out of plain-speaking and has even managed to get away with a few mistakes and climbdowns in the process.

In the wake of the Lisbon referendum, the Taoiseach has worked closely with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, to negotiate concessions from EU partners, developing a good relationship with a man with whom he has not always got on, and the one most likely to replace him if disaster strikes.

Ministers grumble about their lack of involvement in key issues, even more do so about the briefings they receive in advance of TV and radio appearances, which are criticised as late in arriving, overly detailed and subject to constant last-minute changes. Those responsible for preparing them insist that this is because events are complex and fast-changing.

At one time in frequent contact with backbenchers, Cowen has become distant, rarely meeting those outside his immediate social circle in the Dáil bar.

“He’s not there much. Nothing like what people say, but he doesn’t mix much when he is. You can get formal meetings with him, all right, but the loose contact is not there,” says one backbencher.

When he is there, he prefers the company of long-time friends, such as Batt O’Keeffe; Minister of State Michael Finneran; TD John Cregan; on occasion, ex-Dublin North TD GV Wright; and the man who replaced him, Darragh O’Brien.

On first entering office, Cowen barred special advisers from attending key meetings, reflecting his view that politicians are elected, and should be the ones to decide. However, he does have a few who are close to him – though the “super structure” around him is smaller than during Ahern’s era.

His programme manager is Joe Lennon – a 30-year civil service veteran and Bertie Ahern’s government press secretary. Lennon is praised for an enormous capacity for work, though the volume of it does little to offer the opportunity to take a longer view.

Economist Peter Clinch, who drafted the pre-Christmas economic document, is close, too, as is Eoghan Ó Neachtain, an ex-Army officer who served as government press secretary for a year for Bertie Ahern and has stayed on in the role.

Cowen’s close friend, businessman Fintan Drury, who was very visible in the early days of his reign, is less so today, though he was in Government Buildings this week.

A close confidante since university, Drury resigned from the board of Anglo Irish Bank on June 13th, five weeks after Cowen became Taoiseach.

HIS TIRED, EVEN exhausted demeanour is frequently commented upon, though it now emerges that the Taoiseach suffers from sleep apnea – where soft tissue blocks the airway at night, depriving the sufferer of deep sleep.

Cowen has had the condition for years, but it was only diagnosed in late autumn. Once diagnosed it can be fixed relatively easily by a simple apparatus that keeps the airway open during the night. Cowen has used the device, and has looked rested on some days, but it is far from clear if he does so every night.

Some in Government Buildings and elsewhere have found Cowen to be “gruff and intimidating” and prone on occasions to “chewing people out”. But for others, the Cowen approach is preferable to the one that went before. “He is very good if you go to him with something. He’s very clear, very straight. Very modest. You know where you stand in a way that you wouldn’t before,” The Irish Times was told.

While he offers Ministers space – even if it is not interpreted as such by some of them – he tends to micro-manage everything closer to hand. This habit has contributed to the length of time it has taken to produce a recovery plan, and added to the sense of drift that has existed since the summer.

Equally, his own complicity in some of the events that have contributed to the crisis, particularly during his time as minister for finance, has curbed his ability to take clear action. “He was around for the property boom. He presided over much of it. He can’t go around calling for heads, even if he was minded to do so,” says one Minister.

BACK IN EARLY summer, Cowen knew the Exchequer figures were dropping calamitously (though not yet by how much), but neither he nor Lenihan were ever able to put themselves in command of the message.

Following the ESRI’s verdict that recession had arrived, Lenihan promised “resolute, prudent and determined” action, but the Government’s first woeful attempt underestimated the crisis. The political consequences have been severe, as Fianna Fáil’s reputation for economic competence has been shredded.

“The whole thing is in crisis. The worst that I have ever seen. It can’t be rowed back: the over-70s row caused us immense damage,” says one long-serving backbencher.

Even Cowen’s strongest loyalists accept that his communications with the media and with the public have been disastrous. And it is not that he has not been told. Joe Lennon has pushed for changes. So too has Eoghan Ó Neachtain and others.

Ó Neachtain has been at the receiving end of much criticism from the media, who are frustrated with Cowen’s lack of visibility compared with Ahern’s all-consuming presence.

“The problem is that Bertie absolutely spoilt the media. No prime minister in Europe gave the access he gave. It suited him. He made it work for him, even if he despised the whole lot of you to the marrow,” says one adviser.

By exploiting the media in the way he did, Ahern consumed airtime, but this was during “years of plenty, not years of famine”, says one Fianna Fáiler now coping with the crisis.

“It is a different time now. Cowen insists that taoisigh speak when they have something to say, not simply to consume the air. It is a curiously outdated attitude to the media,” says another, though his press team point to the succession of interviews he did with newspapers and broadcast organisations over Christmas.

RELATIONS WITH THE media have not been helped by the increasingly antagonistic behaviour of some, particularly the British tabloids and cutting satire on RTÉ’s Nob Nation and elsewhere that has mocked his appearance, bearing and speech, and damaged his credibility with the public in the process.

One particular crux is his relationship, or lack of it, with the Sunday Independent, which had an alliance of sorts with his predecessor. In return for conditional and unreliable support, Ahern gave regular interviews to the paper about his personal life, and delivered regular exclusives.

It expected similar treatment from Cowen. He, however, had other ideas, and has refused to co-operate. The paper has become his most vocal critic since, a problem that worries many within Government. Cowen has been frequently urged to compromise and find a way of dealing with the paper.

“But he won’t. He won’t let people have a piece of him like that. I hate to say it, but maybe he should,” says one highly placed source.

Next week, Cowen will brief the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party on the actions the Government now intends to take to deal with the economic and banking crisis.

Backbenchers and Ministers complain they have been belatedly briefed and exposed in previous crises. For example they point to the 48 hours it took the Government to appreciate the scale of the over-70s medical card controversy.

And rural deputies point to the lack of clear lines from the Department of Agriculture that marred the opening days of the pork crisis in December.

The same cannot happen now, during a period that could make the October controversy seem tame, as a series of upcoming polls and the local and European elections all point to mounting instability, not less.