Thursday 18 July 2019

Brian Cowen: from local hero to national villain

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen
John Downing

John Downing

Brian Cowen was a local and national hero in early May 2008 when crowned as successor to Bertie Ahern who was forced to quit as Taoiseach after continued tribunal revelations.

Within 15 months, Cowen's popularity was on the floor as the Irish economy was very poorly placed to withstand the hurricane of a huge global recession not seen since the 1930s. One opinion poll in September 2009 put his approval rating at 15pc.

His election as Taoiseach had been presumed upon at least from September 2004 when he was appointed finance minister. At the time he was 44 years old, but had 20 years' service as a TD and had held several heavy-hitting ministerial posts.

He was first elected as TD for Laois-Offaly in the June 1984 by-election caused by the untimely death of his father, Ber Cowen. His first political preferment came in February 1992 when his father's friend, Albert Reynolds, unseated Charlie Haughey.

Later he became a close associate of Reynolds's successor, Bertie Ahern. Many observers believe that Cowen's late intervention, to defend his boss and the party late in the May 2007 General Election campaign, rescued Fianna Fáil from defeat and delivered a third consecutive election win.

As finance minister, his four budgets delivered the biggest tax cuts and welfare increases in the State's history. Critics say he should have known the spending was funded by a false property boom based on property, an assessment he rejects as based purely on hindsight.

He played Santa Claus in his first Budget on December 1, 2004, with no tax hikes and the biggest welfare increases in the State's history. Pensioners got €12 more per week; dole was up by €14 per week; child benefit was up €10 and by €12 for the third and subsequent children. First-time house buyers were exempted from stamp duty on second-hand houses priced up to €317,500, there were reduced rates for houses valued up to €615,000.

Cowen's second Budget on December 7, 2005, gave a €1,000 grant for children under six. Welfare recipients shared a €1.1bn bonanza.

His third Budget on December 6, 2006, was the "return ticket" for the May 2007 General Election as giveaways totalled €1.25bn. The tax rate was cut by 1pc with the promise of another 1pc cut if his government was re-elected.

Economic storm clouds hung over his fourth and final Budget on December 5, 2007, as he was dubbed "Taoiseach-in-waiting". Major car tax changes led by Fianna Fáil's coalition partners, the Green Party, were the main talking point. Two features of his 33 months in office were the September 2008 bank guarantee and the November 2010 EU-ECB-IMF bailout.

The bailout was Cowen's worst day. Soon after his own party replaced him as leader.

Irish Independent

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