An Irishman's Diary


I NEARLY wept the other day when reading a quoted comment from the Taoiseach, in a news report about his proposals for economic recovery, writes Frank McNally

He was justifying the tactic of first securing agreement on any plan from the social partners, although you wouldn't guess that from the extract. Here's what he said:

"I believe it is the best method to get the buy-in for the road we have to travel. I believe it is a problem-solving process about how we collectively come forward with a strategy to deal with the issue."

Yes, I know there have been worse atrocities committed against English during political interviews. But this is Brian Cowen - reputed by (fading) folk memory to be the most articulate speaker in the Dáil, in both national languages.

In fact, I need not rely on folk memory for his reputation. I have witnessed him at his best and I know just how good he can be. It was during the emergency debate on Iraq in March 2003. Bertie Ahern had been gamely squirming on the fence for several weeks over the Government's position on a possible war. Now the war had started. And in a long and frequently windy debate, the last man to speak was Biffo, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, who rolled in with all the authority of a Sherman tank.

His speech was a masterpiece of clarity and power. He described at length but lucidly the history of the world's dispute with Saddam Hessein and the UN's attempts to resolve it. He outlined the Government's involvement in the search for a diplomatic solution, making it sound heroically exhaustive. With a heavy heart, he then talked of the tragic turn events had taken, despite his best efforts.

In the only hint of realpolitik, he noted how important Ireland's relationships with both the US and Britain were, and said there could be no question of the State withdrawing the over-fly rights it had always accorded. But he insisted this did not compromise our neutrality - which, our efforts to secure consensus having failed, would continue in this latest regrettable conflict.

It is true that the fiercely bright light Mr Cowen shone on Ireland's principled position began to dim as soon as he sat down again. And yet this only served to emphasise his rhetorical skill.

It wasn't just the press gallery that was muttering admiration afterwards. If memory serves, only Joe Higgins maintained an air of savage indignation throughout the speech. Maybe Michael D did too. But the opposition at large was cowed by his performance, and the applause from his own benches was notably more spontaneous than it had been for the then Taoiseach.

Unfortunately, such tours de forceby the now Taoiseach have been rare in recent years. Even before 2003, the colourful turn of phrase that he used to deploy so effectively at Fianna Fáil ardfheiseanna had all but vanished from his vocabulary. It seemed to disappear as soon as he started keeping company with the mandarins of Iveagh House, which is when he first started talking like a management consultant. Several years in the Department of Finance obviously didn't help.

For a while, political observers used to lament the disappearance of the old Biffo as a mystery on a par with whatever happened to Shergar and Lord Lucan. Then people got so used to him saying things like "problem-solving strategy" and "buy-in" and "going forward" that we forgot he ever talked any other way.

It took the controversy over his use of the f-word in the Dáil last year to remind us of the old Biffo. The possibility occurred then that he had just been suffering a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome and that if he could be rescued from the grip of the bureaucrats he might yet be successfully deprogrammed.

But of course the very furore over that muttered aside to Mary Coughlan put his captors more on guard than ever. Mr Cowen has since reverted to management-speak and it seems to be getting worse with the economic crisis. Judging by the extract above, he may now be beyond saving.

I SEE from my copy of Methuen's Book of Poems for Every Daythat, in a poignant coincidence - and for no particular reason - today's featured verse is Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken: "Two roads converged in a yellow wood,/ And sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveller, long I stood. . ." This is often considered a consciously motivational work, and is used as such, because its closing lines sound so self-affirming. After struggling with his choice, the poet makes a decision: "I took the [road] less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference." But Frost himself suggested the piece was written in gentle mockery of a friend and fellow walker who, whenever faced with two paths, always agonised. There is also a - usually ignored - note of regret in the last verse that speaks of the irrevocability of all such choices ("way leads onto way. . .") and the impossibility of return.

If Frost has a message for the current Taoiseach, I think it is that, while agreement with the social partners may be the best method to get the buy-in for the road we have to travel, going forward, we may also have to devise a problem-solving process about how we collectively arrive at a strategy to deal with the issue if and when the road we eventually choose proves to be the wrong one.