LARISSA NOLAN IT was an astonishing personal attack on our Minister for Foreign Affairs - but it's done wonders for his public persona.
When raving Reverend Ian Paisley made his snide "thick lips" jibe at Brian Cowen this week, it killed off the 'Biffo' image in one fell swoop.
Suddenly, the whole of Ireland was looking at the Minister in a new light. All eyes were focused on his generous pout. But Hot Lips himself wasn't opening his mouth about the whole affair. After Paisley bizarrely told the world that Cowen's mother used to glue his lips to the floor, the midlands' man kept his dignity and did not hit back, refusing to rise to the bait.
But it's the subject on everyone's lips in his home town of Tullamore, Co Offaly, a thriving spot slap-bang in the centre of Ireland, where Cowen is a hero. The people here are immensely proud of him, rallying around him protectively in the wake of Paisley's intensely personal dig.
A local garda summed up the feeling when he said: "We don't like anyone attacking our Brian.
"What Paisley said was really low down, really dirty, he's the one with the big mouth, not Brian Cowen."
Down in his local pub, the Brewery Tap in Tullamore town, the reaction is much the same. The Minister comes here whenever he gets a bit of time off and has a drink and a chat with all the regulars and his photograph even hangs on the wall.
Tomorrow night, Cowen - a talented singer, by all accounts - will sing live in the pub as part of a concert in aid of the Offaly Hospice.
(And no, he's not going to do a rendition of Put Your Sweet Lips A Little Closer To The Phone , he's expected to perform a Christy Moore number.)
The pub's owner, Paul Bell, is a friend of the Minister's and reckons he will put the remarks behind him for the charity night concert.
"He's a down-to-earth kind of fella with a good sense of humour, so I'd say if anyone
mentions it, he'll just make a joke about it or laugh it off," said Bell.
"He's one of us and I think that's why people here were so offended about Paisley's remarks. One person told me they were watching it on TV and switched off in disgust."
Bell believes that Brian Cowen will only become more popular as a result of the verbal attack.
But he added: "The reference to Brian's mother was particularly hurtful to the Cowen family. The lip remarks alone was bad enough but bringing his mother into it was not on."
Christy May, a local businessman and friend of the Minister, shook off Paisley's comments, saying it will probably just mean more votes for Cowen in the next election.
"Brian Cowen is big and clever enough not to be affected by a cheap jibe like that," said May.
His brother Barry Cowen, an auctioneer in Tullamore, said the family would not justify Paisley's remarks with a comment.
"He's the type who trades in insults, we've all seen that from him over the years. We're just ignoring it, not dignifying it with a response."
But Paisley's comments did get a response from Tony Blair, who cited them as a major factor in the postponement of Assembly elections.