Lise Hand: The soldiers of detox rally to cure Brian's Coveney-induced horrors
Published 15/09/2010 | 05:00
At 8.45am yesterday morning, it looked like it was going to be a routine day at the Fianna Fail think-in. A bit of chat about NAMA and the economy and a final press conference to wrap up the two-day meeting in Galway.
And then, by 9am, Squiffogate was in full swing. For within that 15 minutes the Taoiseach had conducted an interview on 'Morning Ireland'.
That, too, was routine, but yesterday morning Brian Cowen -- a renowned mimic -- sounded eerily like a cross between Louis Armstrong and a rusty gate.
His voice was rough, congested and tired, he slurred his words and stumbled through a couple of his answers, referring to the Croke Park Agreement as the Good Friday Agreement, although in fairness he did correct himself immediately.
Within minutes it was the information super-highway that was congested. Radio stations were bombarded with unimpressed listeners and Twitter was ablaze with a special Molotov cocktail lobbed by Fine Gael's Simon Coveney, who claimed that the Taoiseach sounded "sounded half-way between drunk and hungover and totally disinterested".
All of a sudden, all holy Hell broke lose. It was morning Ireland after the night before. Was he any or all of the above during the interview with Cathal Mac Coille?
For Brian Cowen had been in the hotel's Blazers Bar until around 3.30am in the morning. He had been singing, drinking pints, doing impressions of all sorts of sports stars such as golfers Des Smyth and Philip Walton and sports broadcaster Micheal O Muircheartaigh, which had many of the politicians and media and Fianna Fail staff in the packed bar in fits of laughter.
The Fianna Fail camp was thrown into total confusion. Just after 10am, an unwary Micheal Martin wandered into the foyer of the Ardilaun Hotel, newspapers and breakfast orange in hand, and was instantly surrounded by the media. Micheal looked like a startled rabbit frozen in the glare of oncoming TV camera-lights. "Give me two seconds," he spluttered, beating a hasty retreat into the safety of the NAMA lecture in the hall.
Then it was Brian Cowen's turn to be surrounded. TV3's Ursula Halligan asked him whether the allegation made by Simon Coveney that he was "drunk or hungover" was true.
A clearly taken-aback Taoiseach muttered, "I'm sorry -- absolutely not, it's ridiculous, it's not true at all. Please. Really, that's uncalled for," he pleaded, before his handlers finally extracted him from the scrum.
But then came the rumbling of wagons being circled and the rasp of knives being sharpened. Nothing energises the loyal soldiers of Fianna Fail more than when there is a volley of incoming fire against one of their own.
Having composed himself, the fresh-faced Micheal Martin was wheeled out to launch the first counter-attack. "Of course the Taoiseach was very hoarse during the interview, that was very self-evident and very clear," said Micheal.
"But it seems to me that that's what the issue now seems to be about, that the Taoiseach was hoarse."
Oh, they were all firmly on message now. Mary Hanafin was adamant that the Taoiseach was suffering from "a sinus issue" and was "congested", and best of all, "wasn't a morning person". Though surely if someone isn't "a morning person", he should ensure that he's tucked up in his bed at a decent hour so he's fresh for an early interview on national radio?
A short while later, Noel Dempsey came out scrapping. It was all a Blueshirt plot. "I was listening to some of the Fine Gael texts coming into Pat Kenny," he sniped.
"Enda Kenny did an interview last Wednesday around the same time and there was absolutely no analysis of it afterwards. That just strikes me as a little bit strange," he said.
However in that interview Enda had sounded his normal, if a little vague self, and not a bit strange at all.
As far as Noel was concerned, it was hoarses for courses. When asked why he thought that Brian had sounded so hoarse, he retorted, "I'm not a medical doctor. I have a frog in my throat most mornings. Is that a problem?" he snapped to the reporter.
And then just after 1.30pm the big guns came out to play. Brian Cowen walked into his press conference flanked by a platoon of his troops; Brian Lenihan, Mary Coughlan and Micheal Martin lined up beside him, while most of the other Fianna Fail ministers were positioned close by.
It was a robust performance by Brian. He kicked off by apologising for his hoarse voice -- which had improved noticeably since his croaky interview.
And Coveney got biffed. His tweet was a "real new low in Irish politics," said the Taoiseach sorrowfully, and a chorus of applause and "hear, hears" rose from the loyal troops in the room.
Poor Brian, victim of an evil Blueshirt character assassination. There was a faint echo of the forlorn cheering that bucked up Bertie in the last mournful days when he was under siege over the Mahon Tribunal.
And one reporter who had the temerity to ask if he ever thought of looking at his drinking, was treated to a chorus of disgusted tut-tuts from the troops.
"It's very important to recognise that there are social occasions which we enjoy after political work is done and after a long day yesterday," he said, dodging the actual question.
It was a fighting response from him, but blame who he will, Brian was the architect of his own troubles. Was he hungover on 'Morning Ireland'?
Certainly he came across as uninspiring, negative and weary. But then he all-too often does in interviews. He did slur his words, but then as any journalist who regularly covers the Taoiseach's doorstep interviews will attest, his diction is never particularly sharp. And staying up skulling pints until the wee hours wouldn't improve it.
During his aggressive defence of his leader, Noel Dempsey replied to the question of whether Brian should've stayed up so late. "The Taoiseach is a big boy, he's well able to handle himself," he remarked.
And as a big boy, he should've known better. But as usual, Brian Cowen won't be told.