'Brian Cowen had a fantastic brain but he was overwhelmed when he took over the leadership' - Willie O'Dea tells Paul Williams
Willie O'Dea, Fianna Fail TD and spokesperson for Social Protection, has said that Brian Cowen could have been a good leader, but was "overwhelmed" by the magnitude of the banking crash.
O'Dea, who was first elected to the Dail in 1982, has held a number of positions during his political career, and was Minister for Defence from 2008-2010, when Mr Cowen was Taoiseach.
In a wide-ranging interview for the Paul Williams podcast for Independent.ie, O'Dea spoke about the challenges the government faced during the financial crash.
O'Dea said that he knew Mr Cowen "very well" as he had taught him law at UCD.
"He had a fantastic brain, but when he took over the leadership I think he was just overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problem with which we were confronted," he said.
O'Dea said the crash happened very suddenly and that the banks were not telling them the truth about what was happening behind the scenes.
He also noted that the party lost its way during the boom years.
"We presided over a period of tremendous economic growth in which quite a number of people got extremely wealthy.
"And the natural tendency of people who get very wealthy in a society is to gravitate towards the party in power. And in my humble opinion, we finished up with too many of those guys hanging off us," he said.
"We lost our way to a certain extent.
"You must also recall that we were in power for a while with the Progressive Democrats, and I think that maybe too much of their ideology was reflected in economic policy, even though the pensions and social welfare etc increased fairly steadily for that period of time."
He also reflected on the wiping out of his party in the 2011 General Election.
"What wiped out Fianna Fail quite frankly in the election [was] the decision taken quite consciously by the cabinet… to put in place the measures which ultimately saved the economy.
"The hardest thing in Irish politics, or in any democratic society, is when you put an expenditure programme in place, to cut down is the hardest thing… it was either that or economic destruction."
He said that the General Election nearly wiped them out entirely.
"For two years after the 2011 election, it was an open question whether the party would survive or not. In other words, we had a near-death experience."
In coming back from the "near-death experience", O'Dea said that Fianna Fail has learned some important lessons.
"The party has learned that it's not just a question of giving everybody what they want as Sinn Fein for example propose to do, or as the left propose to do.
"We've learned that people are more intelligent, people have moved on from that.
"People recognise a solid policy, a policy that takes into account not just the present but the future. And that is more and more a feature of the Irish political landscape."
He also spoke extensively about Sinn Fein, and said he doesn't believe Gerry Adams "for a moment" when he said he wasn't in the IRA.
"Obviously he was a member of the IRA, nobody seriously believes he wasn't," he said.
He also suggested that an Ireland with Sinn Fein in government would be "a very sinister place."
"I would be worried about it. I don't think it would be a very democratic place.
"I would feel that if Sinn Fein was leading the government in this country that criticism would not be tolerated.
"You could be subject to the midnight knock - you could be subject to somebody calling to see you to talk to you.
"I don't think they're a democratic organisation and I don't think practising democracy is in their forte.
"I don't think they would respond very well to criticism if they were in the driving seat."
He also considered Fine Gael's popularity and performance in the last General Election, and said that if Enda Kenny had called an election sooner, he would have done better. He said that the Brian Cowen's administration suffered the same fate.
"I'd hate to think of how many votes we lost every day from the time Brian should have gone to the time he actually did go," he said.
O'Dea also weighed in on the likely candidates to take over from Enda Kenny when he steps down as leader of Fine Gael.
"Varadkar is a very large personality," he said. "Frances Fitzgerald would also fancy her chances. She ticks all the boxes.
"She could come through as a compromise - we could have our first Limerick Taoiseach."
However, he also noted that Simon Coveney is seen as a "safe pair of hands" and a "traditional Fine-Gaeler".