Sunday 26 October 2014

John Drennan: First principle of politics is to mind yourself, and Cowen's no good at that

The Galway 'drink-in' debacle was an accident waiting to happen for the Taoiseach, says John Drennan

Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00

CHEERS TO JEERS: Brian Cowen celebrates with champagne after winning his seat in the Laois/Offaly election count in 2007

THE irony of it all is that had he gone to bed at 1.30am, Mr Cowen would have been ahead of the game. But he didn't.

Same old story, same old Cowen.

Of course, our strange Taoiseach would have been ahead of the game in a typically strange sort of way.

When Mr Cowen started his comical half hour slot in front of a stony-faced Dermot Ahern and a flabbergasted Micheal Martin, there were fewer than 40 Fianna Fail TDs and senators in the bar.

Even before the events of last week, this was already a party which was in silent flight from their leader.

The only plus side for Mr Cowen was that at least they were so demoralised there was no possibility of a coup.

Still, when Cathal Mac Coille and the Morning Ireland team walked into the Fianna Fail conference like clean-cut equivalents of the IMF, they could not have known that the next morning's edition of an 'uncut' Biffo would lead to a week of controversies and revelations about a 'half-cut' Biffo.

In truth, were it not for Morning Ireland we had no intention of writing about the Taoiseach's frolics -- for even a Biffo is entitled to some cakes and ale.

The problem, however, was that once Mr Cowen's night-time activities affected his public persona as a Taoiseach then the unwritten right to privacy was erased.

Mr Cowen has, from the start of his premiership, been followed by a sulphurous trail of whispers which suggest that, in much the same way that Daniel O'Connell was reputed to have a child in every workhouse in Kerry, it would be impossible to pass a pub in the country where Mr Cowen's lips have not caressed a tall frosty one.

In truth, we suspect the Taoiseach's greatest political and personal failing is that he

is sloppy. He is clever, yes, but he is irredeemably sloppy. Like any spoilt little prince, he flies by the seat of his pants -- and, too often these days, he gets burnt.

The tragedy was that for most of the night Mr Cowen tried so hard to be good.

To demonstrate that we have only to return to Monday night at the Ardilaun . . .

Even when the wake-like atmosphere was briefly lifted by the arrival of the free bar, Mr Cowen is nursing a water and ice. There will be no cigarettes and beer for Biffo tonight, or until 10, anyway -- and sure by that point it is surely safe to have a couple.

He begins with a couple of decorous Carlsbergs in the lobby before he is drawn into the warm company of the bar lobby, who have inevitably positioned themselves beside the celestial beer taps.

But, even by 12, we are already in the territories of steady as you go, Biffo, for alcohol is a capricious friend.

On some nights you can have a dozen pints and then skate home to the bed in a straight line. However, if you are tired or unprepared, four pints may be all it takes before you find yourself with the face in the soup bowl. Those of us who have lived a bit also know that if you go out drinking, you may not be looking for trouble, but sometimes trouble comes looking for you.

During the flux of flying pints that occur during the free bar, I notice one bar lobby veteran is diverting, with the elan of an air traffic controller, half-a-dozen pints that have been bought for Mr Cowen to other colleagues.

I tell him "you're pacing yourself well there" and we smile conspiratorially, for experience has taught both of us that getting drunk early at these events is a prelude to a bad ending. In politics, even when backs are being slapped, everyone is a sole trader -- and the first principle of life is to 'mind yourself'.

The problem, of course, is that Mr Cowen is not very good at that art.

It is hard to criticise the Taoiseach for enjoying a small bright spell within the comfort zone of the 'good ole boys' for the formerly bacchanalian Fianna Fail 'drink-in' is an insipid affair.

The grim mood is best epitomised by Mr Martin and Dermot Ahern, who are sipping drinks in the prim manner of parish curates attending a funeral. Sadly, back at the bar a strange 'last-stand' fatalistic sort of air is surrounding the partying, for like a bishop in a room full of actresses, Biffo is off the leash and on the lash.

The cruel truth is that, though neither Mr Cowen or Batt O'Keeffe, John Curran, Bobby Aylward, John Cregan or the rest of the bar lobby realise it, this is the worst place the Taoiseach can be.

Even though Mr Cowen wasn't looking for trouble when he started the recitation, there was a growing sense that it was waiting around the corner. Those of us who are small and fat know the camera is not flattering when you've had a few pints.

It would have been the brave soul to put up a camera phone to record the event for YouTube, but Mr Cowen is flirting with danger, and he knows it, for there are a couple of garbled appeals to the media to keep the thing in-house 'lads'.

After the big mess was over, some prim souls were asking why didn't Mr Cowen's friends pull him aside and say 'it's time for the bed now, Brian'. But, it was hardly their job to hold the hand of a fully grown man who is Taoiseach.

As we noted at the start, had Biffo left then, he was ahead. The sad truth, however, was that he was at that dangerous tipping point where the wise old ego warns you that it simply isn't going to get any better if you stay.

But if you are sloppy and if you have been a spoilt little prince all your life, then you take the soft, self-indulgent option. And by 1.30am Biffo was clearly in a warm and fuzzy place. He is now the star of the show, your dear old pals are all smiling, and sure f**k it, a genius like you can wing Morning Ireland for haven't you been doing it all your life and getting away with it?

In truth, we didn't stay to witness the great Lakes of Pontchartrain denouement.

We didn't count how many drinks Mr Cowen had either. But we were around long enough to see where the jig was heading, for if Mr Cowen leaped off the wagon at 10pm -- well, you do the maths.

As we left we were struck by one poignant vignette, for Mr Cowen has a reputation of being a garrulous, convivial life-and-soul-of-the-party sort of a man. But on the rare occasions we have seen him at social functions, unless this shy, troubled human being is performing in front of an adoring audience he becomes morose and withdrawn.

That night, as we left we looked inside to the function room. At his table the Taoiseach was half-sitting, half-slumped beside two pints. Though he was surrounded by those who love him most, he looked like a man who was utterly alone. Our reluctant Taoiseach resembled a figure who wanted to be anywhere else than where he was at that moment. The way things are moving he may get his wish sooner than he expects.

And at that time, just past 2.30 in a rain-lashed hotel, part of us hoped, for his own sake (and ours), that he does.

Sunday Independent

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