Monday 18 November 2019

'Family name is no obstacle to my career, I owe my start to Brian' - Barry Cowen on abuse, rumours and survival

After a week of criticism, Barry Cowen talks abuse, rumours and survival, says Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan with Barry Cowen in Tullamore
Niamh Horan with Barry Cowen in Tullamore
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Barry Cowen is sitting in the calm of his office amid the national storm he has created over his proposals to reduce building industry VAT rates.

"My detractors and opponents have jumped on the bandwagon to say 'oh we are back to the Galway tent', 'we are back to people propping up big developers'. They are using all of this emotive language that plays on people's minds. The odd councillor has even rang me and said 'oh, this is a PR disaster!'"

He asked the councillors the same question he is asking anyone else who has written off the proposals as something that would lead to the mistakes of the past: "Did you read it? Did you see exactly what I said? Did you see the depth of what I was saying? Or the broad nature of many of the proposals I put forward?"

The Fianna Fail housing spokesperson wants to stress that the proposal to cut VAT from 13.5pc to 9pc is specifically targeting the provision of affordable housing and for only three years - although, he says, "a complete VAT holiday in the UK and the North has worked tremendously well".

He added: "My critics want people to believe it's a VAT holiday across the sector. It is not. The cost they quoted, €240m, applies across the sector. It wouldn't be as high as that."

The Offaly TD explains how his proposals have a role to play in getting all areas of the construction sector going again.

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said he expects the company will announce around 150 redundancies at the semistate peat board next year. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said he expects the company will announce around 150 redundancies at the semistate peat board next year. Photo: Tom Burke

"When are we going to realise, if you are going to build a house you need a builder? And the builders need block layers, carpenters, electricians, plasterers and plumbers and they need provision of windows and they need roofers and they need slates and tiles and that sector needs help and assistance, too, and it is a great driver of the economy and it can be again.

"People talk about the trade and investment by the State in apprenticeships - well look at the help and assistance that would give in those areas, while at the same time helping to address the bloody mess we are in."

Read More: Cowen and developers are not actually the devil

On the opposition he has faced, he says: "It doesn't detract me from the need to have this done," and he believes people are pussy-footing around the issue because "they are afraid to overhaul, afraid to overturn and afraid to take bold chances and I am not of that mind".

Still, he is no stranger to standing his ground.

His brother, former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, was at one time the most vilified man in Ireland due to his handling of the financial crash.

I am told this is one issue the Offaly man will not talk about - even to his closest friends. But today he is open, frank and relaxed when discussing some of the more human aspects of the fallout from that time and the effect it has had on his family.

One moment in particular affected him. A video, which went viral, showed Brian being followed down the street by a group of protesters. The protesters confront him, shouting: "Three cheers for the sell-out," before calling him a "scumbag" and "traitor" and telling him to be ashamed of himself. When Brian gets to his car it is has been defaced. He calmly takes the mess from the windscreen and doors and drives away without saying a word.

TD Barry Cowen with his children Barry, Gemma, Lorcan, his niece Meadhbh, sister in law Mary, wife Mary and daughter Aoibhe Photo: Doug O'Connor
TD Barry Cowen with his children Barry, Gemma, Lorcan, his niece Meadhbh, sister in law Mary, wife Mary and daughter Aoibhe Photo: Doug O'Connor

Barry watched the footage afterwards: "I thought he did fierce well to keep his cool - it wouldn't have been me," he says. "But that's the age we are in now, unfortunately. That's one of the unfortunate aspects of social media that has been exploited by these extremists or whatever you want to call them. But, it's a democracy."

On his advice to Brian at the time he said: "I would always say to him 'if you believe you are doing the right thing and if you have the ideological will to do it because you believe it's the right thing and in the best interest of the country - then do it'."

During the hardest time, their mother, now in her 80s, stood at the head of the family already "battle hardened" from her marriage to a life-long politician.

Barry says it upset her at times. "He [Brian] had a wife and children, which is often forgotten. But she was more than capable of dealing with it - as difficult as it was. You have to take the rough with the smooth."

On the advice she gave her sons during that time, he says: "She would always say 'you are elected by the people, you are elected by your constituents, you work for your constituents and hard work will be rewarded. And if you take your eye off the ball, if you neglect your work, if you leave yourself vulnerable and open, you lose your job'."

But he says: "She understands you're only as good as your last election. It could be around the corner at any time, on any day, and that comes from a woman who was married to a person who, in the eighties, did three elections in 18 months, and the difficulties that brings."

One particular form of abuse that upset the family was the use of the term BIFFO [Big Ignorant F*cker From Offaly] to refer to Brian.

Barry explains: "It is a very derogatory acronym. It's the perception that you are rural and you are not Dublin-centric and we don't take kindly to that, and county people don't either."

Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Photo: PA
Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Photo: PA

He is staunchly loyal to his brother and rejects any accusation that the former Taoiseach had a problem with alcohol while on the job.

"I refute it out of hand. But the more you talk about it, the more accusations arise out of it. It is not true. It holds no water. It is completely unfair and inappropriate and it never affected his job."

On the origin of the rumours, he says: "You mightn't have to go too far to realise where it came from but as the Yanks say 'throw the dirt and watch [us] take it off'."

He believes certain sections of the media had a role to play in the tarring of Brian's name and describes how photos were set up to frame his brother in an unflattering light. "A photographer told me they were detailed by their bosses to photograph him at length in the effort to get him with his eyes closed," he says.

"It was almost to give this impression that he was half-jarred - do you know the way you take a photo when someone closes their eyes? You just continue to take [a large number of photos until you get the desired shot]," he explains. "It made me feel disgusted. Absolutely disgusted. The same photographer said to me that they were ashamed they had done it afterwards."

On the topic of alcohol, I ask if the rivalry between the Cowen and Coveney dynasties go back to an infamous tweet by Simon Coveney that the former Taoiseach sounded "halfway between drunk and hungover" while making an appearance on Morning Ireland. It is an accusation that the former presenter, Cathal Mac Coille, has since rubbished.

"I have heard over the years that people said I had a disdain for Coveney because of the famous tweet but that never formed the basis of my relationship with him. We always respected each other and the positions we were in," said Barry.

On the tweet itself, he says: "I didn't think much of it. We all make mistakes. Whether he accepts that's a mistake or not, I don't know, but it wasn't appropriate or right or proper." But he adds: "I don't hold it against him. I am big enough and bold enough to know if you hold grudges you don't get much work done."

Read More: 'Builders' party' might just have a point

In fact, he is quite complimentary of Coveney, especially when comparing him to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. "To be fair to Coveney, you could fight and argue with him and ultimately do a deal with him. But I don't know if you can do that with Varadkar. It remains to be seen. With Leo, I don't know if he is on the same wavelength or watching the same channel at all."

I ask him to expand: "He seems distant and not thoroughly engaged," he says.

"It almost appears as though he comes with a pre-conceived decision and goes through the motions. He doesn't appear to be as natural as other leaders in the past with regards to his ability to connect and converse and communicate with people in the way that Kenny, or Cowen, or Ahern could. It's all very stage-managed and I am sure it will be well honed eventually but whether it will be natural or not I don't know.

"His expert communications unit is teaching him something that came natural to many before him."

On the Taoiseach's PR team, he says: "[Leo] is obsessed with his image and maybe when we get back into the Dail term and under more scrutiny, he might improve [on] the substance.

"Spin got him where he is and maybe he thinks spin can keep him where he is."

He highlights the contrast between this and what he sees as one of Brian Cowen's most admirable qualities: a man who waited years through much criticism to speak in the relevant forum rather than "looking for a slant or a direction to be taken at his behest" by the media.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has held talks on the North. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photo Agency
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has held talks on the North. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photo Agency

Despite his loyalty to his brother, I wonder how Barry would respond to people who say his family name has stifled his political career?

"I want to prove that perception wrong," he said. "If that were the case I wouldn't be re-elected. The public are very discerning here in Offaly and throughout the country. They respect and appreciate the effort and commitment that one makes and reward it thereafter, and they are not prepared - as some are - to be rigid [in their views] and 'guilty by association'? I would hope to prove that wrong to the very few who make that charge. It's a very lazy attitude. Who are they? Or what are they? And what have they ever done or proven to anyone?"

Not only does Barry not see the Cowen name as a hindrance to his career, but he says he owes his career to his brother. "I wouldn't have been elected if it wasn't for him - irrespective of if I had never been in the council for the last 20 years - and I appreciate that. It is no obstacle to me anyway. And it hasn't been. And my colleagues would echo that. And most of the public would echo that, too, especially here in Offaly and it remains to be seen."

I ask him about the tribal mentality in his home town.

"You won't get abused around here. If you want to get away from it all, you go home. That's the case with family life, too. You know the sense of place in Ireland associated with your parish, your club, your county and that's as strong here as it ever was."

It ties in with the biggest lesson he learned from his brother's time in politics: "Don't forget your own - stay true to your own."

The family had spent years battening down the hatches against the nationwide criticism of its most prominent member but more recently their attentions turned to another son. After returning home from a holiday in France Barry got an ongoing health ailment checked out and was sent straight to hospital for life-saving treatment.

"I spent four weeks in hospital and was out for a long time," he says. On the diagnosis he says: "It would teach you the value of life."

He turned 50 last week (his father died at 51) and says "of course you get a scare. But you'd nearly say in hindsight isn't it great to get a fright like that? That you can recover from it and get a different perspective. You hear of some people who never get a second chance."

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