Wednesday 25 April 2018

Cowen 'ignored growing crisis to ensure top job'

Noonan says former Taoiseach failed to act on looming disaster when he was Finance Minister

Barry Duggan

BRIAN Cowen did not attempt to address the crisis facing the Irish economy for up to 18 months as it would have prevented him from becoming Taoiseach, Finance Minister Michael Noonan has claimed.

While Mr Noonan was severely critical of the previous Taoiseach, he said the inheritance of Mr Cowen's predecessor -- Bertie Ahern -- was a bankrupt country.

In a wide-ranging interview with his local paper, the Limerick Leader, Mr Noonan claims Brian Cowen must have known what a disaster awaited the country when he served as Finance Minister.

"And because he wanted to be Taoiseach, he didn't do anything for about 18 months. I would think the calculation was that if [he] had acted when he knew how bad it was, he wouldn't have become Taoiseach.

"He would have lost his support base within the party. So I blame him for that. Because he's a very intelligent guy, Cowen is.

"He had to know. I mean, I knew in opposition. But he wouldn't admit anything until the middle of 2008.

"It was only after he became Taoiseach. He became Taoiseach in May, put in Brian Lenihan and Brian Lenihan started to take action in July. Just enough [to show] that they knew how bad the thing was," Mr Noonan said.

In his intimate style, the former Fine Gael leader answered bluntly when queried as to Bertie Ahern's legacy.

"Bertie's legacy is a bankrupt Ireland. We're a bankrupt country.

"The primary mover in the business model, where we were all supposed to get rich by selling houses to each other, was Bertie Ahern. And his executive officer was Brian Cowen, who failed to correct [him] in the Department of Finance," he said.

"See, Finance is different from other cabinet positions -- it's a constitutional position. There is a specific reference to the role of the Finance Minister in the Constitution which means he can act independent of his Taoiseach in the national interest.

"If he says, 'This can't be done', he has a lot of authority behind him. In other words, you can't take a vote around the Cabinet table and over-ride him. You can get him to resign -- but then you have a real crisis. Especially if he said: 'I was standing up for the Irish Constitution and I got sacked'.

"So I have no doubt about the power of the position. From Cowen's point of view, if he felt strongly about it, he did have a way of dealing with it. He never did that."

Mr Noonan said Brian Lenihan did his "absolute best" in relation to the country's finances.

"His banking policy was a bit of a disaster. Although I would excuse him by saying the banks misled him."

He told Limerick Leader editor, Alan English, before this week's eurozone leaders' meeting that to maintain the trust and confidence of the Irish public, politicians have "to be absolutely straight with people and to tell 'em what the situation is in a fairly unvarnished way".

Regarding his ability to communicate complicated economic dealings in a simple manner, the Limerick man said "the stuff isn't very complicated".

"It's just that a lot of the people who are commentating on economics and finance are using the language of the textbooks that they learned when they were in college. But you can easily talk about the same things in a conversation. Like it's not widely complex.

"I suppose it's so long since I studied economics in college, I've forgotten a lot of the jargon. So I have to make it up as I go along -- not the policy, the language."

Mr Noonan acknowledges had Richard Bruton not challenged Enda Kenny for the leadership for the FG party last year, he would not be now serving as Finance Minister.

"I had nothing to do with either the challenge or the defence. I said, 'There's a row on here -- I've been in too many rows in this party. I'm staying out of it."

A retirement from politics almost became an option around 2007 because of commitments to his wife, Florence, who suffers from Alzheimer's.

"I suppose if the election came in 2006 I wouldn't have stood, but the pressure was beginning to ease off by 2007. Once Florence went into a nursing home, my hobby was politics as well as my profession."

He speaks openly of his wife's ongoing battle and said he never received such a reaction to anything -- even in politics -- after he emotionally told of Florence's plight and the loneliness of being a carer to Pat Kenny last year.

"She's in a nursing home as she was the night I did the interview. All the burdens of caring have been transferred now from the family to personal carers. She's quite comfortable -- but the nature of the disease is that you have a slow decline, so she's declining slowly. But she's still with us, thank God."

Sunday Independent

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