Sometimes, nice guys do finish top of the pile
Published 05/04/2008 | 00:00
'Anyone who went to the UCD bar in the 1970s that didn't get a whiff of marijuana would be telling you a lie'
WHERE, oh where, did it all go wrong? Brian Cowen was once a star athlete, playing a bewildering array of sports, heading for a career as a county solicitor and prosperous local landowner.
Today he instead finds himself top of the heap among the deadly nest of vipers that comprises politicians of every colour and creed in Ireland. And the ironic thing of it all is that Cowen has only ever bared his fangs -- and has never actually plunged them into a rival or colleague.
The Life of Brian to this point may be proof positive that nice guys do indeed, sometimes, finish first. Even if his public persona is one of gruffness, abrasiveness and a perception that he is not prepared to suffer fools for a nano-second, the truth is somewhat different.
A skinny young man who originally swore off a life in politics, determined not to have it consume all his time as it had with his father, Cowen now finds himself at the national helm, public property, with the most pressurised job in the country.
It was the last thing he would have expected, barely a quarter of a century ago. He had set his face against politics as a schoolboy at the Cistercian College, in Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
There he was a nimble young back on the senior rugby team, but equally an adept wielder of timber as a member of the college senior hurling team. He was also on the athletics team, taking part in a number of track and field disciplines -- and there wasn't a pick on him.
Sporting prowess was matched by a razor-sharp brain. In school he was, unsurprisingly, the captain of the debating team, showing early ability to whip out a killer line to despatch an opponent. A master of the withering cur-sios, Cowen was also a member of the Irish-language debating team.
Described by Dan Smyth, president of the college, as "academically very, very strong," he was also "the kind of rounded product we pride ourselves on" -- even if the skinny athlete is now more rounded than he would like.
He has actually commented publicly on his weight. In 1998, Cowen visited Mary Immaculate Teacher Training College in Limerick and agreed to be interviewed on their Wired FM student radio station. While huffing and puffing up a long flight of stairs to the station, a rather green student journalist asked him if he was not embarrassed to be so unfit when he was supposed to be the Minister for Health.
Rather than biting the student's head off -- as might be expected -- Cowen paused, admitted that he was embarrassed, and talked ruefully about the time when he had been fit enough to play for his local team, Clara.
The incident proves that Cowen has a keen understanding of the foibles of human nature, stemming in part from a refreshing self-awareness but also from a long-held sympathy for the failings of others.
"I was reared in a pub," he once confessed in a Hot Press interview. "As a young fellow, serving in the pub, I learned far more there about human nature than I learned in any university or school. I think it gave me a great insight into people."
Cowen doesn't deny that he has liked the pub ever since. Extremely convivial, he likes the essentially democratic nature of the 'local,' where all can come together to relax and enjoy each other's company.
Some would say his fondness for a few pints has kept him grounded and solidly in touch, while others detect that background as playing a part in his slowness, as Minister for Finance, to impose the usual swingeing increases on what used to be termed 'the old reliables.'
He once justified leaving cigarettes untouched in a Budget -- despite Government health policy that specifically called for graduated price increases -- by saying he was simply thinking of poor aul' fellas for whom it was a rare indulgence.
Similarly, he has always had time for the vintners' lobby. In recent years he dispensed the milk of human kindness when carving out special tax breaks for micro-breweries in the Budget. One such enterprise -- coincidentally located in his own constituency -- immediately celebrated by issuing a limited edition lager called Brian's Brew, complete with cartoon of the Tanaiste on the label.
Cowen's fondness for a jar has rarely attracted negative headlines. But he was said to be annoyed when one newspaper obtained a receipt from a Dublin pub showing that he and his buddies had been drinking after hours on the night of one of his Budgets.
He wouldn't deny being involved in the odd 'lock-in' over the years. There is a hilarious story that he tells himself of his attempts to hide when gardai raided a pub in Offaly, and the young TD faced the potential embarrassment of being 'found on'.
"I very seldom would ever drink at home. I know that younger people are different about that now," Cowen said in that revealing interview -- in which he also disclosed once smoking marijuana, something he simply shrugs about, immediately divesting it of any importance today.
"You have more people drinking at home, then going out. But for me, if I have a drink, I have a drink in a pub. On my way home from a meeting, I would always go in for a couple."
Cowen puffed his pot in UCD -- where he was actually lectured by a Cabinet colleague, Willie O'Dea, Minister for Defence. Seven years older than his new boss, Willie tutored student Brian in tax, company and property law. It's a funny old world.
"Anyone who went to the UCD bar in the 1970s that didn't get a whiff of marijuana would be telling you a lie," Cowen said, adding however: "I certainly got more enjoyment out of a few pints."
Cowen always knew his own mind -- and the only thing that diverted him from his planned course was the death of his father, Ber (Bernard) Cowen, a former Minister of State for Agriculture, at the age of just 52.
Persuaded to run in order to keep the seat, the young solicitor agreed to let his name go forward. The by-election was held in June 1984 -- at the same time as the public was captivated by the visit to Ireland of US President Ronald Reagan. As the self-styled Leader of the Free World went down to his ancestral home of Ballyporeen, the town of the small potatoes, another stellar political career was having its seeds sown.
The young Cowen romped home, taking over 26,000 votes, which was more than half of all votes cast. A photograph shows the thin victor, wearing owlish glasses, having his arm raised in triumph by Brian Lenihan Senior -- father to the man who could now be Cowen's Tanaiste, a fellow lawyer and his proposer for the job of Fianna Fail leader. While Cowen joked yesterday that we shouldn't read too much into his nomination papers being signed by the Minister for Justice, it could yet be the Brian and Brian show.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny in recent weeks has sought to float the idea that Cowen has risen without trace, and it is true that his early years in the Dail were nondescript -- marking time while Haughey still held sway and corrupted others around him. The sidelines, in such circumstances, was the appropriate place to be.
Since then he has made rapid progress -- first becoming Minister for Labour under the Albert Reynolds administration, spending a year there before switching to Transport, Energy and Communications. When Reynolds fell in December 1994, Cowen wept. It had less to do with the prospect of the new minister being consigned to obscurity than with a deeply devoted party man demonstrating his frustration at the Taoiseach's pointless fall.
There followed the Rainbow years, with Fianna Fail in opposition. It allowed Cowen to work on building up his power base, by now somehow acquiring the nickname 'Biffo' -- which supplanted the rival label 'Buffalo', the last letters of which supposedly stand for "from around Laois-Offaly".
He developed a close affinity with Bertie Ahern, new leader of Fianna Fail, and became Minister for Health on the return to power in 1997. He did refer to his new Department as "Angola" but only in the sense that new landmines of controversy could explode at any time. He clarified this again yesterday: "I never described it (Health) as a Third World service."
In Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2004, a significant step up, Cowen was seen as an Iveagh House man, effortlessly parroting Departmental lines on overseas trips. But it is little know that he actually advised Yassir Arafat on how he should respond when the two men found themselves together at the time of the 9/11 attacks on America.
A superb warm-up man at party conferences, and likely to be just as warmed up later on, the minister has enjoyed a reputation as a fine singer, brilliant mimic and coruscating raconteur -- even if he had to can it publicly as Finance Minister.
Let's hope he doesn't can it too much as Taoiseach -- so that the real Brian Cowen gets an opportunity to entertain, as well as to lead. Over to you, Tanaiste.