News Shane Coleman

Sunday 21 September 2014

Cowen won't lose moment's sleep at prospect of bank inquiry grilling

Published 28/08/2013 | 05:00

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It's only two-and-a-half years since Brian Cowen, featured in this illustration, bowed out of politics

IT'S only two-and-a-half years since Brian Cowen bowed out of politics, but it already feels like a lifetime ago. No former Taoiseach since Liam Cosgrave has disappeared from the public eye so completely as Cowen has (Charlie Haughey attempted to, before the McCracken/Moriarty Tribunal).

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However, with the Government hell bent on holding a parliamentary inquiry into the banking crash, Cowen's period of hibernation is set to be rudely interrupted.

That's unlikely to be the reason why the former Taoiseach decided to break his media silence and give an interview to TG4's 'Comhra' programme.

One thing we know about Brian Cowen from his brief and unhappy spell in the top job is that he doesn't do PR. It was one of the reasons why he was so unsuited to being Taoiseach.

He's also – politically speaking – well able to handle himself. The prospect of facing antagonistic former political rivals at the banking inquiry won't cost him a moment's sleep.

But the suspicion – and, given how private an individual he is, it can only be a suspicion – is that he bears the responsibility of being in office at the time Ireland lost its economic sovereignty quite heavily.

His interview with Mairtin Tom Sheainin offers some tantalising glimpses of that.

Much of the conversation, as is the nature of the programme, is light in nature, focusing on the Cowens' upbringing, his family and life in Offaly.

But Sheainin shows considerable skill as an interviewer and towards the end of the programme gets Cowen to open up in a way that he may not have done in a purely political interview.

The former Taoiseach talks of "a serious duty to accept my responsibility for what happened and I'm doing that". And he acknowledges that "no doubt" people are carrying a "huge burden" as a consequence of the crisis and "that's very regrettable".

That probably won't cut much ice with those voters still furious with Cowen's government for presiding over economic disaster. But it's clear at least that Cowen, unlike perhaps others, is not oblivious to the pain caused and the mistakes that he, and the governments he was part of, made. To his credit, Sheainin hones in on a crucial area strangely ignored by many of Cowen's strongest critics – his time as Finance Minister. "You were also Minister for Finance. How come you didn't foresee this recession or crisis?" he asks bluntly.

Cowen's explanation that perhaps "our plans for the country were too ambitious" is hardly convincing, although he is correct when he points out the opposition at the time criticised the government for not spending enough.

But Cowen does admit he and his colleagues didn't make plans for "a worst-case scenario" and that they didn't believe those predicting an economic and banking collapse.

And that is key. The political narrative or orthodoxy of the day is that all the country's woes stem from the night of the bank guarantee. That is absolute nonsense. The merits or otherwise of the guarantee can be argued forever – it was almost certainly too broad but some guarantee was required.

But what is crystal clear is that there was no "right" decision that could have been made that night. The damage had already been done.

And it was done before Brian Cowen became Taoiseach. Not, however, before he became Finance Minister.

He was in charge of the public finances during the time when the Celtic Tiger tipped from genuine boom to speculative bubble. He is certainly not solely to blame for that. But it's clear not enough was done on his watch to rein in the excesses.

Whether anybody could have done so is a moot point. Nevertheless, he must take full responsibility for the irresponsible Budgets of that period and part responsibility for the failures of financial regulation.

But whatever about his spell in Finance, there are grounds for believing history may ultimately view his spell as Taoiseach more kindly – heresy though it may be to suggest it.

The decisions he and Brian Lenihan made were wildly unpopular but that doesn't mean they were the wrong ones. Without them, there really would have been economic collapse.

And as he alludes to in his TG4 interview, they took those decisions knowing they would pay an enormous political price.

Perhaps that only balances out the fact that, during the good times, so many of Fianna Fail's policy decisions were made solely for electoral gain. But it is still worth acknowledging.

As is the undeniable point that the policies they implemented from 2008 to 2010 have, by and large, been adopted by the current Government.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny, is regularly described as a lucky politician. Nobody could ever say the same about Brian Cowen.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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