Sunday 17 November 2019

'Dr Cowen' steps from the shadows to defend his tough years in power

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen with his wife Mary at Dublin Castle, where he accepted an honorary doctorate yesterday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen with his wife Mary at Dublin Castle, where he accepted an honorary doctorate yesterday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

Since he quietly left office as Taoiseach in March 2011, Brian Cowen has avoided publicity and got back to normal life.

Last night he stepped briefly into the limelight to accept an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland at Dublin Castle. Bar a long appearance before the Dáil banking inquiry in summer 2015, this was the most comprehensive defence of his controversial political stewardship.

He was Ireland's 12th head of government, probably its unluckiest, and for a time its most publicly reviled. While the Offaly man was Taoiseach, from May 7, 2008, until March 9, 2011, the global banking system fell asunder and the world economy tipped into deep recession.

The impact on an ill-prepared Ireland was vicious, reaching its low-point in November 2010 when the infamous EU-IMF-ECB Troika landed in Dublin to take control of the national purse-strings. From then on he was only nominally the head of government, and from January 2011 he ceased to lead Fianna Fáil, remaining as caretaker Taoiseach until after the February 2011 electoral slaughter of the party his father and grandfather had served.

So, accepting this 'NUI gong', the big question was would he deal with such matters? To listen to the introduction delivered by Professor Mary E Daly, of NUI, Mr Cowen's career had been largely onwards and upwards, bar the odd challenge.

Flashes of the old Brian Cowen were back on display. He said all Fianna Fáil leaders had got an NUI doctorate, bar the party's founder Éamon de Valera, who was actually the head of that august body for years.

Out of respect for students who slogged years to get their PhD in whatever discipline, he would be 'Dr Cowen' for the purposes of this ceremony only.

Read More: Former Taoiseach says he helped to 'facilitate' economic recovery

The circumstances of his departure make it easy to forget that he is the only Irish politician to have been by turns foreign affairs minister, finance minister, Tánaiste and Taoiseach. He was TD for his native Offaly for 28 years and also served as labour minister and health minister.

And it was as part of two of Albert Reynolds's and three of Bertie Ahern's governments, over the years 1992-94 and 1997-2008 respectively, that he has most questions to answer.

As Prof Daly noted, perhaps the focus might be mainly on the years 2004-2008, when he was finance minister.

These were all years of solid economic growth and development - but also the years when an over-reliance on transitory property boom taxes, and weak bank regulation, among other problems, crept in.

These were among the uniquely damaging Irish problems when recession struck in mid-2008.

In fairness to Cowen he did deal with those appalling years as Taoiseach and insisted that he never sought to dodge his responsibilities which, as government leader, rested entirely with him. "I accept that the problems should have been identified earlier and policy should have changed prior to the crisis," he told his Dublin Castle audience.

But he also rightly said the 2007 General Election was effectively a bidding war between the main parties. "The consensus about the future of the Irish economy continued to be optimistic. The critique at the time of my budgets as minister for finance prior to taking office as Taoiseach describe them as measly and did not give people enough. Some other Opposition parties described spending as hopelessly inadequate and totally insufficient," he argued.

This is all true. So, too, is the reality that his Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition front-loaded horrendous cutbacks from late 2008 onwards. They got them through with minimal social conflict and the Fianna Fáil rapport with the public service unions delivered the Croke Park Agreement in June 2010, curbing public pay and numbers.

Publicly, Fine Gael and Labour will reject Cowen's claims that he had done much of the heavy-lifting on cutbacks before Enda Kenny became Taoiseach in March 2011. But that is also true.

Mr Cowen's own Fianna Fáil colleagues can ruefully attest to his assertion that they did delay dishing out the tough medicine. Party stalwarts need no reminding of the resultant meltdown.

It's probably too much for ordinary voters to accept his assertion that he helped build the current recovery.

Irish Independent

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