Getting to know the Taoiseach


BIOGRAPHY:While offering a useful summary of the Taoiseach's career so far, this biography fails to chart his diplomatic abilities and his social awareness, writes Garret FitzGerald 

WHILE IT IS early in Brian Cowen's political career for a biography to appear, it is probably useful to have available a summary of his career to date. This book is based mainly on several interviews conducted by the author with Brian Cowen, and because the Taoiseach is a straightforward person, these interviews probably provide a reasonably accurate account of his personal approach to politics.

His entry to politics was by a traditional Irish route. His TD father, Ber Cowen, had planned to retire early, and it had been agreed that Brian, a solicitor in Tullamore, should succeed him as a Fianna Fáil candidate for Laois-Offaly. But, in the event, and tragically, Brian Cowen's entry to politics did not follow his father's retirement, but rather his father's sudden death at an early age.

Thrown thus into politics at the age of 23, even on the back benches Brian Cowen's ability soon became known. When I found myself a backbencher after 1987, some of my Fine Gael colleagues told me this new Fianna Fáil TD would be worth watching, and when I found myself sitting beside him on a coach returning from a useful back-bench tour of Border areas in the early 1990s I was able to confirm for myself that he was a person of considerable ability.

In 1992, at the age of 31, he was promoted by Albert Reynolds to the Cabinet as minister for labour, and subsequently held the posts of minister of health and children, foreign affairs and, most recently, finance.

The book suffers from its author's unfamiliarity with politics, in particular with both foreign affairs and with financial and economic issues. I feel this has led him both to under-estimate Brian Cowen's success as foreign minister, and to miss the significant shift of the social direction of Fianna Fáil budgetary policy that followed his succession to Charlie McCreevy in the finance portfolio six years ago.

With respect to Brian Cowen's period as minister for foreign affairs, whilst Jason O'Toole refers to his role during Ireland's two-year membership of the Security Council earlier in the current decade, he curiously avoids any reference to the stance he adopted in relation to the Iraq war.

The author dwells at some length on his support for the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and also on his support for US troops being allowed to transit Shannon en route to and from Iraq. But Ireland's Security Council stance on the invasion of Iraq itself is blanked out in this book - as indeed it has been by Government sources ever since.

The crucially important Irish explanation of note on the final Iraq Resolution before the invasion made it quite clear that our government did not regard that resolution as providing an authorisation of an invasion. That, we asserted, would require a further resolution of the Security Council. Deliberately that was never sought, because the US and British knew it would not have been accorded.

Bertie Ahern's subsequent concern to conciliate the United States and Britain led to this principled Irish stance being played down, to such an extent that many - perhaps even most - Irish people have since come to believe that we actually supported the legality of that invasion.

One cannot help wondering whether the omission from the book of any reference to this crucial issue simply reflects a blind spot by the author in relation to foreign affairs - or, perhaps, reflects a wish by Brian Cowen, now that he is Taoiseach, to play down the stance he took at that time.

The truth is that Brian Cowen was an outstanding minister for foreign affairs who worked very successfully with the staff of that department to advance Ireland's role in both European and world affairs, but this does not emerge clearly from this book

As for Brian Cowen's period as minister for finance, the book fails to record the noticeable shift that took place under his stewardship in the social thrust of our financial policy. The contrast between Charlie McCreevy's right-wing approach and Brian Cowen's obvious concern for the less well-off is entirely missed.

On the other hand, the book also fails to address the issue of whether the economic thrust of Brian Cowen's recent budgets was in any way appropriate to the hazardous financial situation towards which our economy was rapidly moving during the middle years of this decade.

In assessing how well, or badly, prepared we have been for the present crisis this is surely the key issue. Instead the book concentrates on a few narrower issues such as taxation of artistic earnings, or Brian Cowen's approach to stamp duty on dwellings.

Naturally the book does not deal with the traumatic events of recent months. It stops in June. But what is disappointing is that its account of Brian Cowen's political career to date offers little material to assist us in understanding how and why the recent Budget came to include unwise spending cuts that failed to survive public scrutiny. On the face of it one might have thought that a Taoiseach with so much grass roots political experience would have instinctively understood the extreme sensitivity of withdrawing benefits that people - and especially people over 70 - had become accustomed to receiving.

Was this perhaps because he and his Ministers, cut off from shifts in the public mood - as I know from experience can all too easily happen to politicians in Government - may have failed to observe the emergence of a subtle shift away from tolerance of spending cuts and towards a greater willingness to accept instead increases in taxation of higher incomes.

But such speculation goes well beyond what one can reasonably expect from a book that was completed in quite a different epoch of global history - fully four months ago!

• Garret FitzGerald is a former taoiseach