News Eoghan Harris

Friday 19 September 2014

Cowen finds his voice and the call is 'fight or die'

Published 08/02/2009 | 00:00

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'Obama has the charisma but Brian Cowen has character." That was what I wrote here three weeks ago, as Cowen's critics were writing him off. But after the Taoiseach's tour de force at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce dinner his critics will have to think again.

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Before we consider what he said, let me make a few points about the way he said it -- and why he doesn't deliver his message with the same power in the Dail. Harry McGee -- who must be congratulated on a tremendous scoop -- told us that the Taoiseach gave an unscripted address for 17 minutes "without notes".

But there is a big difference between not looking at your notes and knowing your notes. The coherent structure of the speech showed that the Taoiseach had been going over some good notes before he put them aside. It reminds me of Kipling's remark that you may not see a fire being raked before you come into a room, but you will certainly feel the effect.

Second, this speech to the Dublin Chamber may not mean a summer of good speeches in the Dail. Here I can speak with some fellow feeling. Although I can speak with conviction to smallish groups -- as when launching a book like Richard Aldous's Great Irish Speeches -- I seldom do as well when speaking in the Seanad.

That's because the increasingly brutish behaviour by a minority of grandstanders in all parties makes preparing a good speech a waste of time. The Taoiseach knows that it is hardly worth his while preparing a scriptless speech to the Dail because it will be peppered by pointless shouts by deputies who will text, talk, sneer and swish throughout with one eye on the camera.

A scriptless speech rises to the level of the audience at which it is aimed. And the level of listening in the the Oireachtas is as low as a High Infants' class. By contrast, the Dublin Chamber audience was composed of serious people, anxious to hear what was on the Taoiseach's mind, not a bunch of prima donnas putting down the day before they filled in their expense sheets.

Plato says that we have to compose ourselves to listen as well as speak. At the Dublin Chamber dinner the Taoiseach could depend on his audience paying close attention before they began to argue. Consequently, Brian Cowen could come clean and reveal what he really thinks about the deepening depression which is causing fear, denial and anger at every level of Irish society.

Since the long daily casualty lists of lost jobs brings a major war to mind, it makes sense to subject the Taoiseach's speech to the same scrutiny as the words of war leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt. Like them, the Taoiseach has to take two lines, first a hard line where he spells out the worst scenario, followed by a hope line where he spells out a plan for survival. Somehow he must steer a middle course between a speech so stark that it frightens the troops and one so full of feel-good froth that lifts his listeners for a brief moment and then leaves them feeling flatter than before.

So what should a war leader do when things are really bad? One answer can be found in the Chinese classic, Sun Tsu's Art of War, where he gives us his grim theory of the "death ground". Sun Tsu says when things are really bad a general must put his troops with their backs to a river and the foe in front.

They are now on the "death ground". This is the time to speak. Because of the circumstances the troops can test the truth of every word. So you make a short speech: you tell the troops that they must now fight or die. Which is what Churchill did in the early days of the Second World War.

A lot of nonsense is written about the alleged "inspirational" quality of Churchill's remarkable rhetoric. But Churchill did not lift his country's spirits by Obama-style flights of fancy. He first put his people on the death ground -- by seeking and then sustaining a war with Nazi Germany -- and then told his people to fight the Germans to the death.

Likewise, in spite of all the hype about Obama's inspirational rhetoric before the American election, it is significant that he has retreated from the rhetoric now that the American people, in economic terms, are standing on the "death ground". More and more, Obama lets circumstances speak for themselves.

Another aspect of Sun Tsu's teaching was pointed at by the absence of any attempt at media spin or indeed media presence. This may or may not have been deliberate -- the Taoiseach may have been taking his thoughts for a trial run. But it is equally possible that Brian Cowen feels that too much media manipulation may make matters worse.

Here Sun Tsu has a passage which -- translated into today's terms -- warns against the procrastination produced by too much dependence on opinion polls or public relations: "Forbid the consulting of omens/ Cast out doubts/ And the troops will go on/ To the death."

But, as the Taoiseach reminded the Dublin Chamber, a civil society cannot be commanded to lay down its life for prudent public finance. Democracy means debate and debate means delays. And for me the most convincing section of Cowen's speech was his defence of the long drawn-out negotiations with the social partners.

Actually, it was all the more convincing because I did not agree with his strategy of spending so much time with the social partners. But in retrospect I can see method in what sometimes looked like madness. By not rushing things the Taoiseach set the scene for landing the levy almost as softly as that plane landed on the Hudson.

In taking it slowly, the Taoiseach was following in the footsteps of his predecessor. Bertie Ahern would also have dragged out these talks until the social partners were so totally tangled in the process itself that they could not credibly find an issue on which to storm out. Letting Ibec and the ICTU rabbit on gave the impression of an infinitely patient Government and an infinitely procrastinating pair of social partners.

Accordingly, by the time the talks finally broke down the Irish people -- if not the pundits -- were marginally less annoyed at the Taoiseach than at the two social partners.

In particular the public was sick of what it perceived as procrastination by the public sector unions -- as the critical texts to radio shows confirmed.

So when Brian Cowen finally showed his teeth, the public sector unions were out of puff. Like the boy who cried wolf, nobody wanted to listen when the levy was actually at the door. And any attempt at industrial action now will invite a very bad public backlash.

All in all, a good week for Brian Cowen and a good week for us. Finally the Taoiseach has found his voice and called us to the colours. Fight or die.

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