Thursday 18 December 2014

Lise Hand: Portraitgate, Lisbon, abuse reports, floods and F-bombs -- it really was some year

Published 24/12/2009 | 05:00

TIS the day after Christmas, when all through the House, not a creature is stirring, not even to grouse. The corridors of Leinster House are deserted as politicians of every stripe are recovering from 2009 -- 12 months described by the Taoiseach this week as "the most difficult I faced in my political lifetime".

But perhaps Brian Cowen shouldn't regard 2009 as his annus horribilis, but as his annus mirabilis -- for many political observers regard it as nothing short of a miracle that his Government has made it through intact into 2010.

In February, green shoots appeared briefly when it looked as if Cowen had discovered an ability to communicate -- a skill which had eluded him thus far. Addressing a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Dublin's Four Seasons Hotel on February 5, he eschewed a script and spoke off the cuff.

His passionate eloquence -- "If we decide to wallow in a sea of doubt, let us not be surprised if we remain in the turbulent waters we are in today" -- earned him a standing ovation and front-page headlines the following day.

Sadly, it was to be a one-night wonder and it didn't save Fianna Fail from a nightmare poll a week later which saw its support plummet to a record low of 22pc, placing it the third most popular party behind Fine Gael and Labour.

Happily for the Taoiseach, he got a welcome break away from the gloomy political and economic scenes when he headed to Washington DC for his first Paddy's Day in President Obama's White House. And what a welcome.

The green carpet was rolled out in style -- Brian had a tete-a-tete with Barack in the Oval Office, followed by a shamrock photo-op, lunch on Capitol Hill and a big party in the White House that evening. President Obama was lavish in his praise of Ireland.

"Rarely in world history has a nation so small had so large an impact," he said. And then he repeated the phrase taught to him by the Taoiseach.

"Is feidir linn," said the US president and back home we all breathed in the magic.

Alas for Cowen, he was (ahem) barely back on Irish soil when Portraitgate (and all hell) broke loose. On March 22, a newspaper reported that a 'guerrilla artist' -- later named as schoolteacher Conor Casby -- had briefly hung two nude portraits of the Taoiseach in the National Gallery and the RHA on March 8 and 9.

The National Gallery rang the cops, RTE ran an irreverent item on the hoohah on its 'Nine O'clock News' the following evening -- but after a word in the ear of somebody in Montrose was had by somebody in Government Buildings, RTE ran an apology on the news on March 24 for "for any personal offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family or for any disrespect shown to the office of Taoiseach by (the prior) broadcast".

Unfortunately, the unprecedented apology ensured that the story was carried around the world, and that the information superhighway was subsequently gridlocked with naughty mickey-taking of our naked leader (who didn't pose for the portraits).

Bamboozled

RTE was in the news again on May 5 when Fine Gael gleefully unveiled the broadcaster's economics guru, George Lee, as its candidate for the Dublin South by-election. Cue instant hero.

At a hastily arranged press conference on the steps of the Merrion Hotel, his bamboozled media colleagues wanted to ask him why he took such a quixotic step.

It turns out he wanted to be able to "look my children in the face when they ask me, 'what did you do when the country was on its knees in the greatest economic challenge in the history of the State?'"

His answer struck a chord with the electorate and he ran away with over 53pc of first preference votes in the election on June 6.

That election took place on Super Friday, along with the Dublin Central by-election, won by Maureen O'Sullivan who ended the Ahern dynastic hopes by beating Bertie's big brother Maurice; also the local and European elections.

As predicted, the Green Party and Fianna Fail lost their shirts -- at a rain-swept count centre in the RDS, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey described it as "a gale-force wind blowing into Fianna Fail faces".

It was a bad day for Libertas, too -- none of its candidates were elected, including chief Declan Ganley who failed to take a Euro seat in Ireland North West. And Declan also tasted a second defeat on October 3, when the second Lisbon referendum passed with a resounding 67pc, kicking off the first in a series of positive results for the Government.

Some good stuff happened for the Government -- particularly in the second half of the year.

The Greens' coalition collywobbles evaporated; firstly in July, the membership voted by precisely two-thirds to support Lisbon II; in October, it gave the thumbs-up at a special conference in the RDS to NAMA and, more crucially, to the renegotiated Programme for Government, as a 'No' vote in the latter would have obliged the party to quit the Government.

And finally, Brian Lenihan -- who had a good year despite the continuing financial meltdown -- managed to steer a savage Budget through the Dail on December 9 without sparking any (immediate) rioting on the streets.

But there was plenty of bad stuff, too.

There were the almost unbearable revelations in the Ryan report into the sex abuse of children in state institutions run by the religious orders which was released in May, followed by the Murphy report in November detailing sex abuse in the Dublin archdiocese.

The only sound louder than the weeping of the victims has been the noisy outbreak of wounded finger-pointing, arrogant denial and bitter recrimination among a squabbling Catholic hierarchy.

There were also resignations in 2009: Bishop Donal Murray over what the Ryan report called his "inexcusable" handling of allegations of abuse; a slew of banking executives, most notably, top dogs at Anglo (Seanie Fitzpatrick and David Drumm); Irish Nationwide (Michael Fingleton); AIB (Eugene Sheehy) and Bank of Ireland (Brian Goggin).

Such was the public mood that outgoing AIB chairman Dermot Gleeson had eggs lobbed at his impeccable suit by a furious shareholder at the bank's EGM in May.

Politically, the biggest resignation of 2009 was the felling of the Ceann Comhairle, John O'Donoghue, who saw his nickname change from 'The Bull' to 'The Bill' after revelations of astronomical expenses he racked up during some serious globe-trotting.

Untenable

Political pressure mounted despite the Kerry TD digging in his heels, until in an electrifying intervention in the Dail on October 6, Labour's Eamon Gilmore declared his position to be "untenable".

O'Donoghue announced his resignation that evening, and stepped down on October 13, signing off with a speech in which he made it clear he felt he was denied due process: "Patience in aid of fairness gave way, alas, to impatience to surf the political wave of competitive outrage."

But just when Cowen may have felt he was almost through the shark-infested waters of 2009, along came the catastrophic flooding of large swathes of the south, west and midlands. And despite his various visits to disaster areas, the abiding image of the Taoiseach out among his electorate is that of him walking away from an upset flood victim in Athlone on November 26.

Luckily for the Taoiseach, the abiding political snapshot of 2009 isn't that image -- or even Portraitgate -- but the TV footage of the Greens' Paul Gogarty dropping the F-bomb in the Dail chamber on December 11.

With his face twisted in a snarl, neck taut with anger, the Dublin Mid-West deputy let fly a belligerent brace of effs towards Labour's Emmet Stagg. Go-Go's bellowed "F*** YOU, Deputy Stagg. F*** YOU!" became the fave 'Look what the mad Paddies did next' item on TV news networks everywhere.

It was some f****ing year, alright.

Irish Independent

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