Tuesday 22 October 2019

Comment: Why timing has left Cowen far behind Ahern in the tough task of winning public rehabilitation

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen Picture: Gerry Mooney
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen Picture: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

The 'Garglegate' fallout was not quite finished for Brian Cowen when Bertie Ahern appeared on television, depicted sitting in a cupboard amid tinned beans, carrots and onions. It was an advertisement to promote his sports column in a British tabloid newspaper, the 'News of the World'.

In the autumn of 2010, intense political and economic woes were compounded by big presentation errors for Fianna Fáil. The party was just months from an electoral calamity which would bring it to the doors of extinction.

Claims that then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen was drunk in an early-morning interview on RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland' in September 2010 resurfaced this week, just as Mr Cowen returned to the news, receiving an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland. On his last day before retirement, RTÉ presenter Cathal Mac Coille broke a seven-year silence to insist that Mr Cowen was "not drunk - but weary" during that interview on September 15, 2010.

Mr Cowen was utterly castigated in the autumn of 2010 for staying up rather late, having a few drinks, and appearing to be below-par the next morning on national radio. By contrast, some three years earlier Mr Ahern's curious personal finances were shrugged off by a public who chose to elect him for a third consecutive term as Taoiseach.

In 2006/2007, when the boom still boomed, Mr Ahern's behaviour included wads of cash stored away in his safe at his St Luke's constituency office. But by 2010, many voters were replaying the "Bertie Ahern tapes" in their heads, and Mr Cowen and his Fianna Fáil colleagues were about to collect a deal of extra back-dated grief as a result.

It was not especially fair. But bewildered by the effects of unfolding recession, people's moods had dramatically changed and their demands on a leader became all the harsher. Again we were back to the key political ingredient of timing.

As luck would have it, former British prime minister Tony Blair, a friend of both Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen, published a memoir at that time in September 2010. Sales of 'A Journey' soared and what the man who led British Labour for 14 years and the British nation for 10 years had to say about public mood sums up the Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen story rather well.

"When the mood is benign, it is truly benign: errors are charming eccentricities, gaffes are amusing, agonised processes of decision-making are simply a reflection of a profound sense of responsibility to get it right.

"When the mood is harsh, it is like running against a relentless headwind: each faux pas is magnified, previous transgressions are recalled and reiterated with renewed vigour, agonised decision-making is just incompetence," Mr Blair wrote. Thus in autumn 2010, Mr Cowen was running into a relentless headwind and could do nothing right in the Irish public's view. And ironically, that headwind was being fanned by none other than Mr Ahern, whose television characterisation in a cupboard was in very questionable taste for a former Taoiseach.

This was the same Bertie Ahern who had been rescued by the steely focus of Mr Cowen in the final week of the May 2007 General Election. At that stage, Mr Ahern was floundering with questions about his personal finances, when Mr Cowen (below) and other Fianna Fáil heavy-hitters, like Noel Dempsey, emerged to switch the election debate back to the national economy.

Many Fianna Fáil people will tell you to this day that it would all have been better had they lost in 2007. People in Fine Gael concur, admitting they were glad they lost that one as it would have meant recession, austerity, and probable political ruin for them.

True, Mr Ahern was served up his share of public opprobrium in the years following his departure from public life. Continuing recession in 2012 amplified an adverse finding by the Mahon Tribunal against him.

We must note that Mr Ahern continues to reject the Mahon findings. But he was booed at Croke Park and, on one infamous occasion, physically attacked in a pub.

Yet time, and the reality that Mr Ahern's perceived transgressions happened in the boom, have softened the public mood towards "the Bert". His commentary on Brexit and the Northern Ireland deadlock are now listened to with interest.

It is worth listening to Mr Ahern given his long-term close involvement. This has been acknowledged by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Mr Cowen is still harshly judged in the court of public opinion. Social media went into overdrive at news of his NUI doctorate and others penned vitriolic letters to the newspapers.

Mr Ahern is clearly far ahead of Mr Cowen in that quest for rehabilitation. But Mr Cowen was to a large degree a victim of sheer bad luck. He has strong grounds for arguing that when recession struck in 2008, he and his government front-loaded the necessary harsh medicine at a huge political cost to himself and his party.

We must focus on big errors in the preceding decade under both Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen in their key roles. Vilification of either is pointless and corrosive. Learning from past errors is what we now need most.

Irish Independent

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