Tuesday 21 October 2014

Cowen must be Mister Fix-It, not a master of disaster

RICHARD ALDOUS

Published 28/12/2008 | 00:00

The year ended with the death of Conor Cruise O'Brien, arguably Ireland's greatest public intellectual and a political force more honoured abroad than in his own country. As the most prominent anti-IRA member of the Cosgrave government, O'Brien would have had some sympathy for any government minister held hostage at gunpoint.

Like O'Brien, the TD in question, Dick Roche, showed a certain coolness in the face of danger. Perhaps it seemed like déjà-vu. For in 2008 the political establishment has spent most of the year with a gun to its head.

That's certainly what the Mahon Tribunal felt like for the first four months of the year. In the end, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern decided to pull the trigger himself for the sake of the political process and the country. Troubling questions remain about the democratic deficit involved in this turn of events. Politicians clearly must be held to account -- that is why the tribunal was established in the first place.

But it was also set up to restore confidence in politics. In that regard, at least, it has failed. The only tangible result so far has been the downfall of a Taoiseach who had been elected less than a year previously.

But Mahon was not the only assault on the political establishment this year. Declan Ganley, who many had laughed off, emerged as the most successful campaigner of the year. His triumph in the Lisbon referendum was in turn a humiliation for the political elite. The 'Yes' campaign's message that the treaty was a tidying up exercise was dull to the point of inertia. Nobody seemed to be in charge.

Pillorying Mr Ganley as the US military incarnate enabled him to play the role of plucky insurgent battling an onslaught from the heavy battalions of the establishment. The more they bombarded him, the more he was able to appeal to a sense of fair play among voters.

Perhaps this as much as anything highlighted the sense of entitlement that emanated from the 'Yes' campaign.

Even afterwards, like a decapitated chicken still running around the farmyard after its execution, the body politic continued to insist there was life in the campaign yet. Lisbon II will show whether or not they're right.

If the resurrection of the treaty remains a possibility, one death looks final and irreversible. The Celtic Tiger has now gone the way of the dodo. A year ago all the talk was of soft landings and money-making resilience. Now the only question is whether the country can avoid a depression.

In September, having been the golden haired child of EU economic vitality, Ireland became the first western European country to go into recession. Worse followed. Bank bailouts, rising unemployment and emigration, increased taxes (a.k.a. the 'income levy'), a black hole in the public finances, shrinking taxation revenues, ballooning national debt, out of control public sector spending: all the news was bad with a promise of worse to come.

Global economic woes and the humiliation of Lisbon played havoc with Brian Cowen's first hundred-plus days in office.

Be careful what you wish for might be the lesson here. Going into the last election, it was clear that in all likelihood he would succeed Mr Ahern during the lifetime of the administration. Since the happy occasion when he took his family to the Aras in May to get the seal of office, he's barely had a moment to enjoy, let alone master, the top job.

Opinion polls suggest deep public dissatisfaction with the major government party. In the autumn, at the height of the Budget crisis, Fianna Fail dropped to its lowest recorded level since polls began.

The challenge now for Mr Cowen is to show that he represents Ireland's future rather than the fag end of the Ahern years. Events further afield in 2008 will have given him cause for despondency and encouragement.

Who'd have thought that Offaly would produce both the sitting Taoiseach and the US President-elect? But Brian Cowen won't like the precedent set by the victory of Barack Obama.

Obama was swept to power on a change agenda that saw off his own party establishment in the Clintons and then, in John McCain, crushed just about the only Republican able to claim a reform mandate. It is easy to forget that even as late as September, Senator McCain was narrowly ahead in the opinion polls. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. McCain's campaign went into instant meltdown and never recovered. Senator Obama may have been untested and offering the kind of liberal economic programme that in previous elections had seen Democrats like George McGovern trounced. The electorate didn't care: change coupled with Obama's personal dynamism was better than continuity of any kind.

That's bad news for Mr Cowen after more than a decade of Fianna Fail government. For encouragement, he needs to look not across the Atlantic but instead over the Irish Sea.

For much of 2008, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, found himself in a similar position to the Taoiseach. Opinion polls seemed apocalyptic. His performances in the House of Commons were leaden. Having been an impressive 'Iron' Chancellor of the Exchequer, the premiership appeared to have diminished him. It seemed only a matter of time before he was replaced.

Then the banking crisis hit. The prime minister found a new energy and purpose. He even took up yoga. Where previously there had been no direction, now there was vision and strategy. Gordon Brown visibly bucked up. Opinion polls reflected a sense that after all, he might be the right man for the job.

There's a lesson in this. We forgive mistakes that come from brave decisions. It is inertia and despair that earns our contempt. Early on, the Cowen government took the courageous route. The guarantee to the banks was bold and imaginative. It drew international criticism followed by quiet imitation. Since then, however, there has been only drift.

Another lesson from Mr Brown is that bold decisions require political heft. When the British prime minister was polling badly, there was precious little of that in his cabinet. His response, to widespread amazement, was to bring his old foe Peter Mandelson back from Brussels. Blairite advisors Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell also returned to the fold. The turnaround in fortunes was immediate and dramatic.

Mr Cowen has plenty of talent in a young team, but the more experienced cabinet heavyweights, notably Micheal Martin, have been kept at an arm's length from economic policy making.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr Cowen could do worse than bring Charlie McCreevy back from Brussels. Like Mandelson, he is a controversial figure, but he has chutzpah and is a bold thinker. More than any other individual in Fianna Fail, Mr McCreevy has the ability to get the government on the front foot again. And to cheer everyone up.

That last point is more important than we might think. An observation often made of Mr Brown is that he has visibly perked up since the financial crisis began. That may seem odd in the middle of a global meltdown, but it reflects his renewed sense of confidence and purpose.

Some of that may be to do with the early morning yoga in Downing Street. More likely, it is because he finally believes he's up to the job.

History teaches us that optimism is one of the most important aspects of political leadership when times are hard. Franklin D Roosevelt, whose New Deal steered the US through the great depression of the 1930s, is considered among America's very finest presidents. Yet in reality the economy in that decade remained a disaster, with unemployment stuck at 20 per cent even as late as 1938. But Roosevelt, with his breezy fireside chats and sense that he was doing everything possible continued to be trusted -- in 1936, he was re-elected with the greatest landslide in the history of the two-party system.

The Taoiseach needs to find a similar kind of optimism and direction. No-one is suggesting yoga in government buildings -- although don't knock it if it works -- but what he does need to convey is the sense that he is the master not the servant of events.

Mr Cowen is not afraid of a fight. But he may need to mix it with a smile on his face.

He could find worse role models than Dick Roche and Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Professor Richard Aldous is Head of History and Archives at UCD. His bestselling 'Great Irish Speeches' (Quercus) is now available in a new book and CD

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