How Brian Cowen's 100 crucial days played out


ANALYSIS:THE EVENING of Friday, September 4th, was a major occasion for two persons in the public eye. One of them was Ryan Tubridy, eagerly preparing for his first appearance as Late Late Showpresenter. But it was also a big night for Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who was one of Tubridy’s interviewees on the programme, writes DEAGLÁN DE BRÉADÚN

The media focus afterwards was on Tubridy’s tough questioning. Less attention was given to the way Cowen used the occasion to send out a message that the following 100 days would be crucial for economic recovery.

He focused on three issues: the Lisbon Treaty, the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and the Budget. He left out the fourth and potentially most dangerous item: renegotiating the Programme for Government with the Greens.

Polling day for Lisbon was less than a month away, on October 2nd, but Cowen had given instructions for the Fianna Fáil campaign to begin the previous January. Sources close to him say he “spent a long time digesting the lessons of Lisbon One”.

What sources describe as a “vital” meeting took place in the Government guesthouse at Farmleigh on July 20th. Present were Cowen, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin and certain key Government and party advisers.

The sports-mad Taoiseach was heading off that evening to watch soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo make his debut for Real Madrid in a game against Shamrock Rovers, but before he did so, the Farmleigh group had worked out the main themes of the Government’s Lisbon campaign.

Thanks to the efforts of all pro-Lisbon parties and the civic organisations, the treaty was passed overwhelmingly 10 weeks later. Government sources say there was no time for “back-slapping” later, as Cowen still had the rest of his formidable agenda to get through.

The renegotiation of the Programme for Government with the Greens is described by one of Cowen’s inner circle as “The secret front in the Hundred Days’ War”. The process was due to begin in September, but was kicked to touch because the referendum campaign was in full swing. “The Taoiseach didn’t want key personnel bogged down in negotiations when they could be selling Lisbon,” says an associate. “He was also conscious that the review might dominate the news cycle at the expense of the vital pro-Europe message Government was working to get out.”

The first serious meeting between the two parties only took place on September 30th, two days before the Lisbon vote. There was consternation on both sides when the next day’s Irish Timescarried a front-page report with a list of Green priorities for the talks.

The Greens were put out initially because they believed the leak had emanated from Fianna Fáil as an attempt to undermine them. Well-placed sources say it soon emerged that the document reported in The Irish Timescontained a number of proposals that were not part of the list the Greens had presented to the larger coalition party.  The leaked document “had been circulated beyond the Green negotiating team and their back-up staff to a consultative group of party members”.

The meetings took place in the offices of Green Party Communications Minister Eamon Ryan and Fianna Fáil Transport Minister Noel Dempsey. The Green team comprised of Ryan, Mary White TD and Senator Dan Boyle. Their back-up staff were Ryan adviser Suzanne Duke, press officer Brid McGrath, programme manager Donall Geoghegan and Aoife Ní Lochlainn, who also works for the Green Party in Government Buildings.

The other side was led by Noel Dempsey, who was joined by Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern. Their back-up staff were Cowen’s programme manager Joe Lennon, his economic adviser Peter Clinch, his speech-writer Brian Murphy and Avril Power, adviser to Hanafin.

Cowen’s role in the process is labelled “vital but low-key”. The talks were described as “slow but good-humoured”.  Members of the two teams had already been working together fairly smoothly in government for two years.

The Greens initially presented a list of over 260 proposals, and Dempsey co worked through it, item by item. Some were agreed, some rejected, and others accepted in a modified or reworded form.

Likewise with a draft programme from the Fianna Fáil side. Sources close to the Fianna Fáil team say they were conscious the Greens had a convention of party members to get through which would be crucial for Government stability:  “They were prepared to give the Greens some ‘victories’, but fundamentals like Nama, economic policy and expenditure parameters had to be respected.”

On Friday, October 9th, the party negotiators appeared live from Government Buildings on the RTÉ Nine O’Clock Newsto say the Renewed Programme was agreed. Key elements were indeed in place, but there were still details to be ironed out. Politically, it was seen as essential to get the message across that there had been agreement in order to avoid what sources called a “sense of drift” at the Greens’ convention next day at the RDS.

After the Nine O’Clock News, the negotiators returned to finish going through the Fianna Fáil counter-proposals, item by item.  They then joined the back-up teams who had begun the process of merging the list of agreed proposals into a cohesive document and “working on the language”. This was not completed until 8am on Saturday morning.

A copy of the Programme was sent to Cowen and Green Party leader John Gormley for approval before it was e-mailed to Green Party headquarters for their convention that day. An overwhelming 84 per cent of the Green conference then ratified the document.

Cowen was in upbeat mood as he made his way to Croke Park for the Ireland v Italy World Cup game: his coalition partners had committed themselves to government until 2012. But challenges still remained, and Nama was looming. Sources say the Taoiseach spent “a lot of time” talking to Brendan McDonagh of the National Treasury Management Agency, now interim managing director of Nama.

Government Whip Pat Carey is described as “crucial” in keeping party backbenchers on side, and in keeping open communication with the Greens. After more than 120 hours of debate the Nama legislation was approved by the Oireachtas on November 12th.

Finally, there was the Budget. Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan met formally six times to discuss it, accompanied by their key officials, and the Cabinet devoted 13 meetings to the subject. “It was a Budget where a lot of conditioning was done,” say Government sources. “There were no shocks and people knew [from] a long time out where the cuts that might affect them would fall.”

In the lead-up to Budget Day on December 9th, Cowen, Carey and key officials were in contact with Independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae, former PD deputy Noel Grealish and potential dissenters from the Fianna Fáil family James McDaid, Máire Hoctor, Eamon Scanlon and Jimmy Devins.

All of these Deputies supported the Budget despite speculation that some or all of them might go overboard. Cowen and Carey were also the prime movers at Cabinet in bringing forward the Social Welfare Bill by a week.

This passed through the Dáil on Friday December 11th – which was 98 days after Cowen first spoken about a crucial hundred days for the country on the Late Late Show.

Deaglán de Bréadún is a Political Correspondent

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