The secret to a long life is knowing when it's time to go
A Taoiseach needs guile, toughness and media savvy, and Cowen just doesn't cut it, says John-Paul McCarthy
Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00
Brian Cowen's wheezing interview with Cathal Mac Coille probably stirred unhappy memories in all his listeners, as they recalled similar miscalculations in their own lives.
The figure of a chastened Taoiseach donning his sackcloth and ashes as he trudged towards his public Canossa brought back a more specific memory as well, involving the startling portrayal of Cowen in Bertie Ahern's recent memoir. Ahern recalled the day he charged Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness with PIRA membership. They reacted badly, and began to berate Ahern before the then foreign minister, Cowen, lost his temper.
Ahern wrote that Cowen "eventually stood up and banged his fist on the table. 'You will not speak to the Taoiseach of our country in that way!' he roared. McGuinness jumped up and the two of them stood eyeball to eyeball, neither saying anything".
Cowen, it seems, was the only man in the room who knew what was required when doing business with the men whose minions turned Patsy Gillespie into a human bomb in 1990. (This hapless father of five was chained to the steering column of a van with a PIRA bomb in the back and ordered to drive it to a military checkpoint at Coshquin so the bomb could be detonated.)
Cowen's premiership has lost that assurance and toughness. He is suffocating in the public sphere, that treacherous channel across which all modern prime ministers must now swim for dear life.
Micheal Martin's stern rebuke to the Taoiseach last week suggests that, in some fundamental sense, Cowen's premiership is irretrievably contaminated by his inability to find the proper gravitas or weight of voice in public.
It must be galling for a man as proud and decent as Cowen to suffer such a remorselessly protracted public humiliation.
Cowen did not conduct coalition business in a tribunal witness box like Albert Reynolds, and he did not make threatening family values speeches after spending weekends in Paris with his mistress like Charles Haughey.
And yet, he finds himself in the pillory. Because there seems no way now that he can ever adequately redeem himself with the media classes, Cowen and his staff might ponder a few historical precedents, all of which underscore the melancholy insight that sometimes it's better to jump in your own time, rather than be pushed at the moment of maximum indignity.
It's often forgotten, for example, that Jack Lynch offered to resign the leadership of Fianna Fail in 1975 after making a relatively minor error in public when he declared that he had no previous knowledge about the Littlejohn brothers, both of whom were tried in Ireland for a bank robbery and who claimed to be dupes of MI5. When Garret FitzGerald privately reminded Lynch that he had seen papers on this issue when Taoiseach, Lynch apologised publicly and then said he might have to resign, regardless of the fact that he had a firm grip on his party and remained popular in the country at large.
Lynch's dignity here looks all the more striking when set next to Cowen's problems.
An unusually popular Fianna Fail leader offered to resign office after a fairly trivial lapse of memory, while one of his a successor clings grimly to the crown amid extravagant public ridicule and ballooning national debts.
One can also point to Liam Cosgrave. Cosgrave's coalition government was roundly beaten by Lynch in 1977, despite general recognition that Cosgrave had been a strong and efficient chief executive.
Sensing that the game was up for his brand of social conservatism within his party and probably the country as well, Cosgrave resigned the leadership of his party within weeks of the election -- though he almost certainly could have held Garret FitzGerald off for another term. Not unlike his father in 1932, Liam proved that there could be quite a lot of dignity in retirement.
Cowen's fairly sloppy approach to the media beast conjures up more and more unhappy British precedents.
His rhetorical monotony, with its insistence on "getting on with the job", "long-term-approaches" and "taking the tough decisions", is in danger of becoming a parody of Gordon Brown's favourite phrases during his dying electoral fall. When trapped in the cat-and-mouse game Ireland now has to play with international investors, the Taoiseach needs the guile of a De Valera and the toughness of a Lemass, or even just the canniness of a Jim Callaghan during his shadow war with the International Monetary Fund in 1977. Instead, he acts like a bad version of JA Costello, another peppery, accident- prone Taoiseach.
The day may be hastening when Cowen realises that, for all his private joie de vivre and decency, he does not have the skills required to function in an era of mass media.
If he decides that he cannot lead the country, as distinct from the party, in this environment, then he can take comfort from the fate of another contemporary prime minister. Kevin Rudd in Australia resigned the premiership a few months ago rather than trigger a bloodbath in his Labour Party or risk a snap election. Sensing that he could not change his manner or his style, he jumped rather than bring the electoral temple down on his head.
Labour narrowly won the ensuing election under Ms Gillard, and Rudd has begun a new life as Australia's foreign minister, free of the ridicule and hysteria that previously engulfed him.
The Australians believe that there is life after prime ministerial death. The Taoiseach could do a lot worse these days than test that proposition some day soon.
John-Paul McCarthy is researching Gladstone and Ireland at Exeter College, Oxford