Traces of 'old Fianna Fáil' as Cowen feels heat from lack of disclosure

 

ANALYSIS:Questions will focus on whether or not the Taoiseach misled the Dáil last February

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen’s omissions in not disclosing two significant contacts with the former Anglo Irish Bank chief executive Seán FitzPatrick were described yesterday by a Government source as “old Fianna Fáil”.

It was not as if the Taoiseach had no opportunities to inform the public that he had spoken to Mr FitzPatrick not once, but twice. He had ample opportunity, in the Dáil and elsewhere, to inform the public of his interactions with the disgraced executive who personified Ireland’s banking calamity. And it was not as if Cowen was not asked the right question, as former taoiseach John Bruton once claimed to explain why he evaded giving a full explanation on a controversy.

Both Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore asked him very specific questions that went to the heart of this issue on February 17th, 2009.

The “old Fianna Fáil” description went some way to explaining why Cowen chose not to make a public disclosure about two events that others would feel obliged to disclose. Those events were receiving a phone call from FitzPatrick in March 2008, and spending a day playing golf and eating dinner with him, along with businessman and PR adviser Fintan Drury (a confidant of both men) in July that year.

Cowen’s defence of not making public the two exchanges was that he had simply passed on the information he received in the phone call to then Central Bank governor John Hurley about problems surrounding Anglo shares held by Seán Quinn.

The second – the round of golf – took place in a social context in the company of a mutual friend while Cowen was on holidays. He maintained the conversation never strayed on to the subject of Anglo Irish Bank. Ergo, there was no need for disclosure.

It is also clear that Cowen would never have disclosed the information had FitzPatrick not spoken to two journalists who were writing a book. His statement last night denounced the Opposition for malicious and unfounded imputations about his motives and also strongly implied that the reason he did not disclose the two contacts was because nothing untoward happened

Cowen’s anomalous approach – the political equivalent of the prevailing culture in the TV series Mad Men – cut little ice with the politicians most interested in his response yesterday – Fianna Fáil backbenchers, Fianna Fáil Ministers, the Green Party and the Opposition.

There was nobody in Fianna Fáil, publicly or privately, who would countenance the suggestion that Cowen was trying to hide something, or that some secret arrangement was made. All argued for his honesty but at the same time the vast majority of TDs, including Ministers, described the disclosures as hugely damaging for Cowen, and for what is left of his reputation.

“It’s becoming a predictable pattern,” said a senior Minister. “As soon as a controversy or problem finishes, something else happens for him.” One of the party’s prominent younger TDs, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “From a legal point of view, he did nothing wrong. But politically it’s dynamite. Seán FitzPatrick is at the eye of the storm. He should have said he talked with him. It would have eliminated all the hassle.”

The Greens’ response to the revelation was far more public from an earlier stage.

The party may not have quite shared Dan Boyle’s language of “seriously concerned” but it is clear that its TDs and Senators fully shared the sentiment and the concern.

The issue was intensively discussed at the first day of the party’s two-day think-in in Malahide. And it was leader John Gormley’s phone call with Cowen at 5pm yesterday that led to the Taoiseach agreeing to issue a “comprehensive statement” and fully answer Opposition questions in the Dáil. Those questions will focus on whether or not Cowen misled the Dáil in February 2009.

The Taoiseach accepted that in March 2008, while he was on a visit to the Far East, Seán FitzPatrick rang him. Anglo had taken a pounding in the markets that day and the bank’s chairman expressed concern about short-selling of its shares, and the growing crisis surrounding Seán Quinn’s purchase of shares using contracts for difference (CFDs).

Mr Cowen said he would pass on the concerns to the governor of the Central Bank.

But the Taoiseach said last night that the meeting with the Central Bank took place before the phone call, and FitzPatrick was merely giving him information he already knew. Cowen said he passed on that information to the independent authorities and had no role or influence in any subsequent decision.

But why did he not bother to inform the public that he had those two encounters with FitzPatrick, and nothing turned on them?

Most of the 10 or so Fianna Fáil TDs who spoke to The Irish Times yesterday vented frustration at the latest setback, but there’s no mood for a heave, with most feeling it is too late.

The clear majority were of the view that Cowen will lead the party into a March election. The Government could only fall earlier if a glaring issue arose in his statement that forced the Greens from Government.