Have I missed something about Brian Cowen?

A lot of Brian Cowen, more to come

If Bertie lasted a decade Cowen, who seems a lot more careful, will almost definitely be with us for much longer. Brian in 2008. Brian in 2012. Fine Gael for a few months before they screw it up – around say 2016. Then back to Brian until 2020. Then Brian for the Aras. Until 2034. Brian Cowen, everywhere every day until we’re all dead. Like it felt with Bertie.

Fianna Fail have obviously chosen this man because they think he has great qualities and the media coverage would be serviceable in a totalitarian state. All we ever read is that he is intelligent, articulate, Fianna-Fail-through-and-through, someone who doesn’t suffer fools blah blah blah. Nobody has challenged this consensus – and yet give them time and they’ll all come ’round!

For the moment I have a few nagging questions. What has he done up to now as a Minister? Isn’t it partly his fault that our economy has major structural problems? Has he ever said anything that I should really remember? Is that gruff/Biffo thing all there is or is there something else there? Have I missed something?

The only thing I can think of is that the media, which after all aggrandise Enda Kenny who has all the gravitas of an over-coiffed moth, feel they must be constructive to the new man. But constructive at what cost to their credibility?

I remember after both Bush and Brown were elected, thinking that they had unusual personalities that would ultimately (soon?) fatigue people. It seems to me Cowen is in the same bracket. He always looks like someone has just extracted one of his teeth. He is stuck in irritable gear. Of course Fianna Failers love the annoyed act as they seem permanently in search of a missing parent (see song-singing blind adulation of Dev, Haughey, Lemass, the Flynns etc).

Anyway, below is an article from Mark Hennessey, typical of many current articles that fight to lionise the new leader and much more informative and well-argued than most. Where I see only a scowl, Mark Hennessey somehow sees a leader who can be “softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough”, a man who aims to be a “visionary technocrat” like Sean Lemass. This man is a paid political commentator, does he not realise that the phrase is a base political oxymoron? Bertie Ahern says Cowen has a “brilliant” mind and Senator Mary White says there is “magic” when he speaks. In support of this sort of mythology The Week in Politics last week treated us to footage of Cowen laying in to Senator Feargal Quinn who had criticised the National Development Plan as lacking coherence or vision. The implication was that here was a heavyweight. Cowen released his inner bluebottle all right, but in substance he waffled. On and on about how big it was, how much would be spent, what a difference it would make. I listened and there was definitely nothing about a vision. Quinn looked terrified but he was, in fact, right.

Brian Cowen does claim to be republican and a patriot. Mark Hennessey thinks that’s an attractive touch but surely republican is code these days for having no vision. Eamon Ryan spotted a vision (well he would) in some speech Cowen gave at the Royal Irish Academy where he mentioned the environment. But generally he doesn’t even get as far as the environment. And the same speech shows his vision of equity stops at a shifty reference to equality of opportunity, rather than any sort of equality of outcome. What really feeds this guy’s buzz, and no doubt he’d be horrified to hear it said – though it permeates nearly all his speeches, is the uninspiring notion of PRODUCTIVITY.

No – Cowen will be more of the same. More ad hoc policies rooted almost entirely in economics but with just enough of a social side to convince the mostly unimaginative commentators.

And he sometimes drinks, Hennessey implies – unless I’ve misread the IrishTimespeak which also echoes a recent insulting  Sunday Independent piece – to shirt-dirtying excess. And at least we will have a Taoiseach who will sing.

Is it all enough?

Cowen looks to Lemass as he lays out vision of future [From Thursday’s Irish Times]

ANALYSIS:The new public face of Brian Cowen was on show for the first time yesterday, writes Mark Hennessey.

FOR YEARS, most of the public has seen Brian Cowen as Mr Grumpy. Yesterday, he put forward a new public face: softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough.

His first outing as Fianna Fáil leader-designate was a triumph, laying out the first chapters of his leadership to come, while respecting current office-holder Bertie Ahern.

Through it all, he spoke of words not often heard in Ireland outside of the realm of “the fourth green field” and bar-room republicans: patriotism, duty and service to one’s country.

The benchmark for Cowen is not Ahern, even if he mentioned him frequently, but Seán Lemass, and in particular, the Lemass of the 1960s, the visionary technocrat.

If backed up by actions, a Cowen-led government – one that has a minimum of four years to make its mark – should offer a very different perspective to that presented during the Ahern era.

In style, it will be quieter, with less of the celebrity-focus brought to it by Ahern, who built a significant part of his success on making his own life a soap opera for the public.

Though he has been left a united party by Ahern, Cowen faces major troubles on the economy, unemployment, the Lisbon Treaty and, crucially, the sclerotic public services.

For over a decade, Ahern worked in partnership with trade unions in a deal that delivered industrial peace, but not reform on the scale needed.

Change has been bought and often bought dearly. Now, change must continue, and accelerate and not be bought by a Government happy until now to sign cheques to stave off trouble rather than take hard decisions.

Cowen insists that the public service status quo cannot be sustained, and that change must come, but by agreement, not conflict. Indeed, he makes the point that the unions have already accepted it under Towards 2016.

Quick to declare full support for Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney, Cowen ended any speculation – the little there was – that she will be moved next month.

Her actions were taken with the agreement of the Cabinet, and “in compliance” with Government policy, he told journalists.

In fact, Cowen, who is not popular with many in the health services from his time in the Department of Health, went further, and questioned the motives of some of those opposing the HSE.

Many of the HSE’s “critics are, in fact, using their criticism as a ruse to maintain the status quo”, he declared in strong words softly spoken.

Making it clear that there will be no changes to any of the hospital reforms currently under way, he warned that “parochial arguments” could not override patient care.

However, it is not clear, and it may not become clear for a long time, what Cowen will do in the face of wilful obstructionism.

Will he just talk or will he bark? Will he, if necessary, bite?

Throughout his career, Cowen has always been the quintessential Fianna Fáil loyalist; once dismissive of junior coalition partners, contemptuous of enemies. However, he has learned, or he wants us to believe he has learned, at the feet of a master how to make coalitions work.

Asked yesterday if Fianna Fáil could secure an overall majority – once the holy grail of the party’s ambitions – Cowen seemed to indicate that while it would be nice, it did not matter very much.

Coalitions are where politics are at for the years ahead and Cowen seems intent for now on not being the man to wreck Fianna Fáil’s reputation as a partner – one that could keep it in power for years to come. However, junior Coalition partners should not look for too much after his litany of compliments to Labour’s Eamon Gilmore in recent months.

The tactic fulfils a number of objectives: it makes the Greens and PDs nervous and therefore more acquiescent; and it damages Enda Kenny’s ability to put forward an image of a “government-in-waiting”.

For anyone listening closely to Cowen yesterday for the first time, he would have presented an attractive image – one that is closer to the reality than his public image.

Uncomfortable with applause and anxious to get away from television cameras, Cowen has not lost touch with his roots or background and is less ego-driven than most in politics.

But even his constituency of Laois/Offaly was given a polite warning not to have an undue sense of entitlement or to take advantage of him or the office he will occupy in a month. “They will also know that in taking up this job that my responsibilities are national and that my responsibilities are to all the people of Ireland,” he told a local radio reporter.

The same message, perhaps, needs to be heard, and may have already been heard by some of those who have been his closest friends in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party over the decades.

Yesterday, some of them were ushered to seats at the front at his press conference. For some, it is a sign of preferment to come. For others, it is all they will get, but, perhaps, not all they will expect.

The softer image will be key. Cowen is a thoughtful, intelligent man, for the most part in private, but he can be a bruiser, particularly when faced with those he believes are not his intellectual equals. The political difficulty is that while men might find his demolition of enemies attractive in a pugilistic sort of way, the majority of women do not, and are not likely to be any more forgiving of such conduct from him as Taoiseach.

And Cowen is going to have to become more attractive to women voters if Fianna Fáil is to thrive. Ahern will be a hard act to follow with female voters.

Finally, the office of taoiseach will force changes on the lifestyle of a man who is social, blessed with the constitution of an ox and enjoys a drink or two.

So far, he has twice sought to set the bar as high as possible for journalists who might try to pry into his private life and that of his family. Cowen, however, knows that such a request will go unheard in some media quarters.

The image of a taoiseach, seen frequently in print with a pint in hand, may meet with a public smile for a time, if not forever, but it is better not to give ground to those who might exploit it.

Cowen is careful to obey the proprieties and not to talk as if he is taoiseach until he takes over on May 7th and forms his government after he receives his seal of office from President Mary McAleese. In the meantime, he will pay all due respect to Bertie Ahern, who is thanked by his Fianna Fáil colleagues for what he did as leader, but, if they were honest, most particularly for choosing to go when he did.

In the cruel way that will mark the passing of this political leader, even if it does include a US Houses of Congress speech, Ahern will appear as a man increasingly forgotten but not yet gone in the month ahead.

© 2008 The Irish Times

3 Responses to “Have I missed something about Brian Cowen?”

  1. Robert Browne Says:

    Brian Cowen and a bunch of “social partners” run the country. That is what he believes. Ergo, he believes in consensus, consultation, in groveling, in inertia he also believes in the innate kindness and reasonableness of the Social Partners. I don’t remember voting for social partners and I certainly don’t remember Mr. David Begg on any ballot paper!

    Cowen seems genuinely afraid to lead. I ask myself, why on earth did he ever crave for this leadership job? Why did Mary Harney crave and demand the department of health? There is an inertia about him and this government that is bringing this whole country to its knees. That might not be as bad for us as we think. Of course, as a country we will resemble the third world first and it will be very painful. However, if you visit some of our hospitals, schools, abandoned housing estates or look at the dilapidated Roscommon Court House you might be forgiven for thinking you were already living in a third world country. Inside the court the blame game was in full flight, I digress!

    Of course Cowen was a useless minister for finance just like McCreevy and Bertie before him. They squandered the ill gotten gains of the Celtic Tiger. Cowen would never cut a tax if he thought it was still generating a single euro for the exchequer. What was the logic of increasing VAT by a half a percent to twenty one and a half per cent? Just to be sure to be sure that people would go to the north to shop! Scrooge school of economics is what I call it. Trying to explain to him that raising taxes blunted consumer confidence, would lead to hoarding of cash, would lead to jobs being shed at accelerating rates would mean rising unemployment and longer dole queues was like trying to explain the theory of quantum physics to an infant.

    The only luminosity on the horizon is that when this government cannot meet Anglo’s debts, cannot cover BOI and AIB’s debts and cannot repay sovereign debt, it will have no choice, but to allow the ECB and IMF in to call the shots. This will happen sooner rather than later because of the damage Ireland is doing to the reputation of the Euro and Eurozone.

    I firmly believe, when they come in, that, we will begin to have a proper HSE for half the fourteen billion it currently costs us. We will have investment in rat infested and leaking primary schools, cheaper power when the “private” ESB and An Bord Gais are again brought under the proper remit of those vested with running the state. These two energy entities have been hi-jacked by their members and are being run like private fiefdoms. When oil was one hundred and forty seven dollars a barrel they were shouting it from the roof tops as they proceeded to crucify people with insane energy bills. It seems the equation does not work the other way around! That is, when oil falls your gravity defying energy bill stays at the ludicrous level it was inflated to.

    The way the country has been milked of taxpayers funds, the shameless way our politicians have wasted the money, the fact that no one resigns, and no one goes to jail informs us clearly of the sorry state our democracy is in ninty years after the first Dail. The last thing our “patriots” in Dail Eireann want is to face the dole queues themselves, this means, that the whole squalid performance will carry on until foreigners come in and run the country for us!

  2. Robert Browne Says:

    Well as I predicted they came. I must agree with Damien Kiberd that the MOU signed by Brian Lenihan and governor of the central bank was nothing short of “a surrender document”.

    With FG becoming more FF that FF themselves and ably supported by Labour/Democratic Left/Workers/ICTU how long will it be before the Irish people finally wake up to no pensons, no jobs for your children and no future?

  3. Robert Browne Says:

    Well it is December 30th 2011 and all the sheeple, wilderbeast, sardines are still being driven this way and that by the clever killer whales (been watching David Attenborough) but FG/Labour have learned the lessons of FF and need no prompting, they blow bubbles to conceal their arrogance as they make off with what is in the public purse supplemented by the old 67.5bn form the ould MOU surrender document as they boldly predict tuff times ahead for the little sheeple.

    So, I pick up my Irish Times today and find an opinion piece that declares

    “Croke Park Achieving Agreed Public Service Targets”

    Now, who would say that? Skip to bottom of article….Dave Thomas is General Secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants. Well he would say that would he not? 170,000 p.a. to say it!

    But wait! in the same paper page 4. “Pay levels for new senior semi-state staff to be Reduced” …. The government has already asked existing staff earning over 250,000 to take a 15% “voluntary” cut. Two chances I would say, slim and none, then this little gem, “it makes no sense in terms of administration unless you have an expert brought in for a particular purpose, to have subordinates paid more than the chief executive officers”. Well you don’t say?

    Oh! what a perfect tangled web of state bankruptcy, corruption and collusion and delusion we weave or to state our new president in one of his telling Dail speeches before he was elected, “you were all sitting on each others remumeration committees!” Yes, indeed, President Higgins and what dear Sir, dear President, dear Leader are you going to do about it? Nothing?

    Maybe mention it in one of your epic poems? May I suggest a title for your next book? ‘Poems From The Aras’ I am sure ,you will have plenty of time between state visits to compose such works where you can vent once again, your spleen, esconsed on your artistic, linguistic couch in the Park, finally, amidst the heards of deer the roar of Lions the trumpeting of elephants though fear not for there is no bigger beast in the political jungle now than your humble self.

    As to the coming year? It will be financial armegeddon for the little people of Ireland, who will realise they have voted for the beggars on horse back once again. But, faced with the usual threats to cut dole, old age pensions and the continued ransom being paid out to “public servants” it is doubtful we will do anything until the 67.5bn is fully pilfered.

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