The downing of a minister: How Barry Cowen went from hero to zero in just twelve days

Micheál Martin had made up his mind the Minister had to go if he refused to make a second statement

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has been sacked by Taoiseach Micheál Martin who told the Dáil that the Offaly TD would no longer serve in Cabinet arising from continuing controversy over his drink-driving conviction. Video: RTE News/Oireachtas TV

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There is an apocryphal rule often attributed to Tony Blair’s former spokesman Alastair Campbell that if a politician continues to be mired in controversy a fortnight after the story first breaks then he or she will have to walk the plank.

The saga that concluded with the demise of Barry Cowen’s short-lived ministerial career did not last quite so long - 12 days. However, it did follow an arc very similar to that of previous minsters who were sacked, or forced to resign, such as Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald.

Friday, July 3rd:

Rumours have been circulating for some days about a drinking ban that Cowen had in the past. Both Cowen’s office and that of Taoiseach Micheál Martin are contacted by the Irish Independent with records purporting to show that Cowen was given a three-month ban for drink-driving in 2016 and also received a €200 fine. It is the first that Martin has known of the offence.

Saturday, July 4th:

The report is published. It also emerges that Cowen (49) was driving on a provisional licence and had been for some years. He issues a statement saying he is “profoundly sorry”. He also lets it be known he now has a full driving licence but does not disclose when he made the test.

The Taoiseach says he was first made aware of the conviction the previous day. “I am disappointed that I have heard about it in this made and have made it clear to [Cowen],” he says.

Sunday, July 5th:

The situation has now become a crisis for Fianna Fáil. The party has earlier had to contend with internal ructions over ministerial appointments. Cowen, in the first of a series of apologies, is a guest on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.

He makes a candid apology. “The fact of the matter was it was a terribly stupid, stupid, mistake on my part,” he says. “It is something that I am very regretful for.”

He admits that he had driven unaccompanied on occasions when on a learner permit and says, in hindsight, maybe he should have informed Micheál Martin at the time.

Paul Murphy, the Rise TD, says it is “bizarre” that anybody who is close to 50 did not have a full licence.

Further stories emerge about a speeding ticket and another minor road traffic infractions, seemingly gleaned from a Garda Pulse report.

Monday, July 6th:

Amid persistent demands from the Opposition for more clarity, it emerges that Cowen has contacted the Ceann Comhairle asking to make a personal statement on the matter in the Dáil. It is agreed he will speak the following day.

Micheál Martin seems reassured by Cowen’s apology and explanation for not contacting him earlier. “He was deeply ashamed of it and embarrassed that the incident occurred in 2016,” he says.

Tuesday July 7th:

Cowen makes a personal statement in the Dáil at 9pm. He again apologises about his “stupid mistake”.

He explains for the first time the details of his drink-driving arrest. It happened on the day of the All Ireland football final. He was stopped in Co Kildare as he was returning to Co Offaly with a friend.

“Before the match I consumed two drinks and following the game had a light meal before driving home to Offaly. On the way to drop my friend home I was stopped by gardaí and asked to participate in a Breathalyser test. I did so, and both this test and a subsequent test at a local Garda station confirmed that I was over the legal alcohol limit.”

While he was on a provisional licence at the time, he says “I subsequently secured and now hold a full clean driving licence.

“Before reform it was not uncommon for people of all ages and experience to be on a provisional licence.”

He also says he has spoken to a number of road safety campaigners earlier that day including Susan Gray of Parc. He says he had apologised to them.

But Gray later criticises Cowen, saying he failed to address various aspects of his driving licence. She and others call for him to specify how many learner permits he held, and if he displayed “L” or “N” plates on his car.

Sunday, July 12th:

The controversy seems to have receded a bit. However, The Sunday Times now reports details of the Garda record of the September 2016 incident which alleges the Offaly TD was pursed by gardaí after doing a U-turn before a Garda checkpoint.

Cowen begins a robust defence. He claims the Garda record is “incorrect” and says the fact that gardaí leaked a Pulse record was an act of criminality.

He states that he had never evaded or avoided a Garda checkpoint. “I did not evade or attempt to evade a garda. Such an act would constitute a serious criminal offence,” he says.

It was, arguably, a more serious offence than the drink-driving ban. Under Section 109 of the Road Traffic Act failure to stop a vehicle when required by a Garda is a criminal offence, punishable by fine, and/or imprisonment.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) is asked by the Garda to investigate the circumstances in which the confidential Garda Pulse record of the incident was leaked to the media.

Other details are now emerging. It is clear that copies of the Garda Pulse record had been leaked to reporters at least ten days before then. And the record contained the allegation that Cowen had tried to avoid the checkpoint.

This allegation of evasion had been put to Cowen and to Fianna Fáil as early as July 3rd, nine days beforehand. However, Cowen had denied it very strenuously. It had not appeared in earlier media reports and Cowen himself had made no reference to it.

The previous week Martin had briefed Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Green leader Eamon Ryan on the incident but had made no mention of the alleged evasion of the checkpoint. Varadkar had said he did not want any more surprises.

Taoiseach: Micheál Martin arriving for the Cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle on Monday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Taoiseach Micheál Martin arriving for the Cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle on Monday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Monday, July 13th:

Perhaps the day that sealed Barry Cowen’s fate. Asked for comment by RTÉ’s Midlands Correspondent Ciarán Mulooly, Cowen says that under legal advice he was not making any further comment until such time as Gsoc issued its report.

Varadkar is interviewed on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. He refers to his comments from the previous week where he wanted no more surprises and then refers to the new revelations. However, the thrust of his interview is calibrated. He does not call for a head and seems to accept that perhaps allowing the Gsoc investigation to follow its course might be the preferable option.

Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin, speaking on Newstalk, says Cowen needs to clarify matters further.

That is the theme being pursued by the Opposition parties who are asking Cowen to make a new statement and also to answer questions in the Dáil. Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly says the fact there was a dispute between his account and that of the Garda record showed the need for him to answer questions in the Dáil. 

“He has said he wants to draw a line under it, the Taoiseach says he wants to draw a line under it. Clearly a line has not been drawn under it. We are still talking about it now ten days after it was first revealed.”

Green Party deputy leader and Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sports and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin who on Monday said Cowen needed to clarify matters further. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times
Green Party deputy leader and Minister for Media Catherine Martin who on Monday said Cowen needed to clarify matters further. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

The previous week, Cowen had requested and received the Pulse report of the incident from the Garda. He and Martin have a lengthy conversation on Monday night about the record. Martin asks to see it.

As questions are raised about the source of the leaks, the Meath East TD Thomas Byrne rejects suggestions that he had tipped off the media about Cowen’s run-in with the Garda.

“There’s a civil matter in relation to this. It does not involve me. I’m on good terms with Barry Cowen,” he tells LMFM in an interview.

Tuesday July 14th:

Micheál Martin and Cowen meet to further discuss the matter. Cowen shows Martin the Pulse report, which suggests a more benign interpretation of events than had been portrayed by the media.

Martin lets Cowen know that in his view a “comprehensive statement was required” and that he as Minister and an office holder was obliged to come before the House to explain himself.

Cowen refuses. Martin tells him he really needs to consider his position. He later says that “the fundamental difference [between us] is that he took a legalistic approach to defend his rights as a citizen

“In my view, the issue could only be resolved with the political route.”

Martin tells Cowen it does not have to be on Tuesday, or even Wednesday but at some stage a comprehensive statement is required.

At around 11.30am, Martin meets Varadkar and Ryan and tells them that Cowen has said he will make no further statement and he has had asked him to reflect on his position. Both said they agreed with his position and would support what decision he would make.

Sources in both parties insist that neither forced the issue in any way or “sought a head on a plate”.

“I thought when the Taoiseach went in at 2pm he was actually going to announce that Cowen was gone,” said one.

In the event, Martin gave a partial defence of Cowen under questioning in the Dáil from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Again he referred to some ambiguity in the Pulse record.

“I saw the document myself this morning and having seen it, I can say that it is not quite as it has been portrayed.  Nonetheless, the document is there.”

In those sentences, he was outlining the problem (the Pulse document existed and needed to be explained) and the possible solution for Cowen (a more benign reading of it).

But it needed Cowen to agree to make a fresh statement before the Dáil and answer questions.

Shortly after Leaders’ Questions Martin went to the canteen in Leinster House and spoke casually to journalists. He pointed out that the statement made no explicit reference to a “U-turn”. It seemed to suggest that he was still holding out hope Cowen would change his mind.

The relatively spirited defence of Cowen, plus the refusal to allow a statement, suggested that the Government was holding a line and was now prepared to weather out the controversy. Those with experience of previous occasions when office holders were sacked or resigned were familiar with the temporal arc. The controversy would reach a point where the pressure was so unbearable and the clamour so frenzied that the Minister was holding on by a thread. One more sliver of trouble would be enough to topple him or her.

As one former Fine Gael minister said on Tuesday: “It had not reached that point. It was much too early. Nobody had any expectation that he was about to get sacked.”

And that’s why it took so many by surprise. Just before 9pm, Martin went to the Dáil to announce he had sacked Cowen over his refusal to make a further statement. He said there were questions that needed clarification and it was not tenable for other Ministers to provide a proxy for Cowen by trying to answer them.

Barry Cowen leaving the Cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle on Monday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Barry Cowen leaving the Cabinet meeting in Dublin Castle on Monday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

So what happened in the intervening seven hours? Well, it seemed that well before 2pm, Martin had already made up his mind that Cowen had to go if he refused to make a second statement.

His defence of him in the Dáil was affording the Offaly TD a final chance to address the issues. Later that afternoon he formally asked Cowen to reconsider. Cowen refused. He then asked him to resign. He refused. The plank was now readied.

Within half an hour of the bombshell, Cowen responded with a lengthy statement on Twitter, with a direct cut at Martin for sacking him only seven hours after backing him.

“Ten days ago and this afternoon the Taoiseach believed my failure of 2016 didn’t warrant my removal from office but he now appears to have changed his mind based on a Pulse report I gave him this morning.

“Unfortunately the decision of the Taoiseach to remove me from office, when he supported me this afternoon in the Dáil, has undermined and potentially prejudiced my entitlement to fair process,” he said.

Publicly, Fianna Fáil TDs strongly backed the Taoiseach’s decision, praising him for being decisive. They also expressed personal sympathy for Cowen, who is popular and respected by his colleagues.

Wednesday July 15th:

Martin’s disposition was matter-of-fact and unruffled during Leaders Questions in the Dáil’s temporary home of the National Convention Centre. He refuted Mary Lou McDonald’s claim that he (Martin) challenged the Garda report, arguing that he had never done that, and that was why he expected Cowen to make a clarification.

Cowen arrives at the centre and goes into the chamber. He is seen talking to John McGuinness and, later, to Eamon O Cuív. They may be chance encounters but they underline the potential split within the party. Backbench TDs in the canteen are bemused - they refer to it as the worst possible start in Government.

Nobody quibbles when Dara Calleary is announced as the new Minister.

Martin continues to face questions about the matter from Opposition TDs. However, as the day continues, it is the Apple judgement that begins to dominate the agenda. A potential crisis has been allayed for now.

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