Speaking in London, Mr Cowen accepted property incentives should have been reduced more quickly, banking regulation should have been stronger and non-compliance with financial rules should have been tackled.
However, he told the London School of Economics’ Irish Society that the capital investments made by his administration on improving roads, water and other areas “is helping us through this recession”.
“There is no question about our ability to come back has been because of our ability to be competitive,” he declared, adding that 10 of the 11 budgets produced by the Fianna Fáil-led government before 2007 had been in surplus.
He said his administration had made difficult decisions, adding he had supported the actions of the late former minister for finance Brian Lenihan.
“When things went wrong we didn’t step back and say, ‘We won’t take up our responsibilities’. We took up our responsibilities,” said Mr Cowen, who received some abuse recently from anti-water charges protesters in Dublin.
Acknowledging the suffering that has been endured by many due to the economic crisis, Mr Cowen said: “It is very difficult, it has caused a lot of problems for people, I am very conscious of it. There is no one more sorry about this than I am.”
However, he insisted that the prevailing advice - from the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation in Europe, plus most domestic commentary, “with one, or two exceptions - was ‘that this would not end the way it did’”.
Defending the growth in public spending that took place before the crisis, the former Fianna Fáil leader said there had been “a very great sense” that the historic problems of under-employment and emigration had to be tackled.
Pointing to the increases in the old age pension, Mr Cowen told the LSE Irish Society gathering: “We did increase spending way beyond inflation. My attitude was, ‘If you can’t do it now, when are we going to do it?’ ”
During the 2007 election, he said, “one elderly gentleman said to me, ‘Thanks that when my grandchildren come now I can give them a fiver rather than worrying about whether I have enough briquettes in the grate’. Those were social benefits that could not be delayed.”
Equally, he defended the higher wages that were enjoyed by many: “Don’t be surprised, if there is growth, that working people want to get a piece of it. Why shouldn’t they? That is part of what happens when things go well.”
In the end, Ireland “didn’t have a sustainable position” when the crisis broke, but he refused to accept criticisms from those who had previously condemned his actions in government as being too miserly.
“When I was producing those budgets, go back and look at what people were saying. I was described as Ebenezer Scrooge. Those who were opposing me were opposing me because I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t moving fast enough to build new schools, or deal with waiting lists.
“Let us not project back now all that we know now by those who are in government now, who were not telling me at the time that I was being expansionary. They were telling me that I wasn’t being fast enough.”
During a wide-ranging address, Mr Cowen spoke particularly warmly of his time in the Department of Foreign Affairs, voicing the pride he had felt when the European Union welcomed Eastern European countries to the club during Ireland’s 2004 presidency.
However, he said he believed some EU states are increasingly seeking to reduce the powers of the European Commission, which has always enjoyed the right of initiative to propose new EU legislation and defended the rights of small nations.
Insisting he was not criticising recent office-holders, Mr Cowen said the post of president of the European Commission should be held for one four-year term, without the possibility of a second, because “otherwise the end drifts into a campaign for re-election”.