Wednesday 13 November 2019

'Ireland was vulnerable to any international economic crisis' - 10 talking points from Brian Cowen's honorary conferring speech Political Editor Kevin Doyle dissects Brian Cowen's 50-minute speech to bring you the 10 talking points

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
Former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern & Brian Cowen during a Conferring of Honorary Degree by the National University of Ireland to Brian Cowen in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Brian Cowen’s rare return to the public spotlight has generated a somewhat feverish response. Political Editor Kevin Doyle dissects his 50-minute speech to bring you the 10 talking points that have the former Taoiseach back in the headlines - and how the internet reacted to Mr Cowen's award.

1. It was only a matter of time before Brian Cowen got this award

Eyebrows were raised when it was announced by Brian Cowen was to be conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the National University of Ireland. However, insiders say it was only a matter of time.

In his speech Mr Cowen noted that every Taoiseach except Eamon De Valera and John A Costello were granted a similar honour. Mr De Valera was a distinguished Chancellor of the NUI for many years so was unlikely to give himself an award. The absence of Mr Costello from the role of honour is unexplained.

Bertie Ahern, who attended yesterday’s ceremony, received his doctorate while still in the Taoiseach’s office.

During his speech Mr Cowen said: "As an alumnus of U.C.D, I look back on my student days there with great fondness. Looking back now, the Ireland of the late 1970s and early 1980s was a very different place to the country we see today, with many high and low points in between."


2. Cowen 'never briefed against colleagues'

Politics is a fickle sport where everybody has to defend their own patch even if it means doing down allies. Ministers regularly brief against their colleagues – but Mr Cowen says he never did.

"I was always observant of the principle of collective responsibility in government. I never briefed against a colleague or sought to influence a prospective decision by government through media leaks or otherwise," he said.

He also said he never threw anybody under a bus. "That has never been my style and I defy anyone involved in media who has covered politics during my career to come forward and give me even one instance where I did that."


3. Cowen describes his own time as Taoiseach as "arduous"

Brian Cowen’s terms as Taoiseach from May 2008 until March 2011 coincided with the arrival of the Troika. In his speech the Offaly man said the job was "arduous task with the onset of the financial crisis and the economic recession we experienced as a result."

He says he "confronted the problems."

He added; "We did not delay or defer a change of course, and as a people we kept our nerve under the most trying circumstances."


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Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD during a Conferring of Honorary Degree by the National University of Ireland to Brian Cowen in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

4. Celtic Tiger weaknesses were "not sufficiently recognised"

Mr Cowen described what he saw as the background to the economic crash, saying behind the high growth and international praise of the Celtic Tiger were "built in weaknesses in the Irish economy which were not sufficient recognised."

"The weaknesses were seen as risks but the extent of the risks were underestimated," he said, adding there was an over dependence on indirect/transactional taxes like VAT and Stamp Duty.

"The bottom line was that Ireland was uniquely vulnerable to any international economic crisis," he said.


5. His government recognised "the magnitude of the crisis" as taxation collapsed

Many analysts have argued that Brian Cowen’s government were paralysed in the face of economic doom but the former Taoiseach said they "recognised the magnitude of the crisis hitting the Irish economy as taxation collapsed, home building stopped, domestic demand dramatically declined and consumer and investor confidence hit the floor."


6. Cowen "deeply regrets" that 250,000 lost their jobs

It was the closest Mr Cowen came to saying sorry during his speech. He outlines that the "greatest hardship" of the recession was the loss of employment – "something I deeply regret."

"Hardworking men and women who ask only for the chance to work to support themselves and their families were denied that opportunity by the cruel reality of an economic downturn that impacted upon millions across the world. 

"250,000 of our 2 million workforce lost jobs, the vast majority in construction and related industries and in retail," he said.


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Former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern & Brian Cowen during a Conferring of Honorary Degree by the National University of Ireland to Brian Cowen in Dublin Castle, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

7. Fianna Fáil "made the hard decisions" that led to economic recovery

History will judge this argument but Mr Cowen is "crystal clear" that his government put the steps in place for the economic upturn. He says the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition knew they had to take decisions "more unpopular than almost any policies in recent Irish history and that this threatened the survival of the Government and our hopes of election."

"However, we also know that to avoid taking the decisions would mean that future recovery could be put off by decades," he said.


8. They were all as bad as each other

One point that’s hard to argue against is Mr Cowen’s claim that any other political party would have done the same as Fianna Fáil during the boom years. He noted that "a cursory look" at the 2007 election manifestos shows the consensus about the future economic progress was "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'," he said.


9. He praised the Government for their Brexit response

It’s unusual for anybody in Fianna Fáil to praise Fine Gael, but Mr Cowen said the Government "is to be commended for ensuring that Ireland's concerns regarding the operation of the border in a post Brexit situation is clarified and dealt with satisfactorily before moving on to the next phase of the negotiating mandate given to Michel Barnier and his team by the European Council."


10. A few ideas for fixing the housing crisis

Mr Cowen told the audience he would make just one comment on the current housing problem.

"I think that if we revert to common building standards with the UK even say just for the next three to four years, we can get the housing market back moving again, particularly lower-priced affordable starter homes for our young people," he said.

"If we do that I am of the view that the housing sector will come back much more quickly and in the necessary volume to deal with present day demand."

Our readers give their verdict

John Cuffe Dunboyne, Co Meath

Full marks, not to 'Dr' Brian Cowen, but to the National University of Ireland. What was the pressing urgency into honouring a man who presided over the slide into chaos of a noble nation? Mr Cowen was at the helm when we lost our sovereignty.

His Fianna Fáil permitted our banking industry to earn the sobriquet of "The Wild West of Banking" in the 'New York Times'.

And NUI thought it a good idea to honour gross failure.

Any honour for the thousands of young people forced out? Any recognition to those who lost their homes, businesses and, in some cases, took their own lives thanks to cannonball economics presided over by the likes of Cowen and Bertie Ahern. 'Dr' Cowen? No, more like Dr Who.

Via Letter ·

Frank Quinn Ranelagh, Dublin 6

In North America, a common phrase is "what goes around, comes around": meaning if you treat others badly, it will eventually come back to bite you. This is obviously not always true in North America, but a significant percentage of the population seems to take it seriously.

For whatever reason, we have contrary approaches: the first is that we seem to admire "blaggers" or chancers as something to which we should aspire; when things go wrong for the chancers (as they usually do), the first defence is "it was not my fault and I did nothing wrong" eg. Lehman Brothers, European Central Bank, Irish banks and the banking regulator (the last two using a government-defined remit and government-designed laws).

The latest approach (although used before) is the Irish Revisionism, eg the Europeans caused the crash by stabbing us in the back, but Fianna Fáil then went on to engineer the recovery which, worryingly, now seems to be at its height, with no lessons learned!

Really, Dr Brian Cowen and NUI, have you no shame and do you think we will fall for this again? Oh, yes we will!

Via Letter ·

Robert Sullivan Bantry, Co Cork

An honorary doctorate from NUI for Brian Cowen means that normal comedic politics have been well and truly restored.

This we remember and relate to instantly when it's shoved in our faces - as if we could ever forget.

Via Letter ·

This sends out the wrong message and as a graduate of NUI I am extremely disappointed with this. I am going to contact them and I think everyone should to let them know that this is inappropriate. This award should be reserved for people who contributed to Irish society and not someone who was in charge when the country was destroyed. Remember, we entrusted him to manage our collective resources efficiently. If he was in a private business he would be fired for destroying a company's assets. In Ireland he gets an honorary award. Really pissed off with this.

Via Facebook ·


What I cannot understand is how someone as well educated as Cowen with access to all the economic and financial data of the country did not see the crash coming. I was living and working in the UK and all my friends and acquaintances were constantly asking what is going to happen to Ireland when the bubble bursts. Home on holiday  one year when holiday homes were being built near my birthplace I said to my brother, half in jest, I would not mind buying one of those, they were being sold at 170k and my brothers reply was "wait a year or two and you will buy them for 70k, sadly he was wrong they are now going for 30/35k. If he, a carpenter, knew what was coming why didn`t the government with all the expertise available to them see the writing on the wall.

Via ·

The nui just showed how how of touch it is with reality.

Via Twitter ·

Why does he deserve an Honorary degree, someone who destroyed this country, it is a disgrace but not surprising , it seems all the wrong people in Ireland are rewarded. But then we seem to accept it.

Via Facebook ·

It seems, sub-par performance gets you recognized and rewarded! #briancowen

Via Twitter ·


He says that they took the measures knowing it would hurt their chance of re-election. So really that's all that's important, to save their own asses. Forget about the people chucked put on the street, the family's broken apart etc etc. No as far as he's concerned it was about their ability to get re-elected. They don't think they work for us they work only for their own self betterment, and then they give him a medel.

Via ·

Don't forget the NUI in all this. Who made the decision to hand Brian Cowen this Honorary degree? Talk about sticking their fingers up at the Irish people. I'd imagine a group of people voted on this.

Via Facebook ·

Disgusting to see this. The hard neck of him to accept. Both of them destroyed so many lives. The people will remember.

Via Facebook ·


If FF tried to put a stop to the boom, There would have been war. Public servants would have walked out en mass from jobs. This problem started years before with buying off PS's. Benchmarking has ruined this country.

Via ·


Cowan was a decent person,a poor politician,De Bert on the other hand!! What can one say about Bert???

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"Regret" is a very regrettable choice of word, considering everything that happened. 

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Spent over half an hour blaming everyone except the people responsible - Bertie and his cabinet.

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Crocodile tears about the jobs, and the award is an insult to the vulnerable people of Ireland that suffered at the hands of this mans decisions

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In protest I will hand back my NUI degree. It means little when I see these two clowns being recognised for creating a generation of indentured servants. Job losses, enforced emigration, public services slashed, tax hikes, hospital waiting lists etc are just some of the costs to society thanks to this pair.

There is one metric that sums up the shameful performance of these two -

National Debt pre-Crisis (2007)...€50 Bn

National Debt 2017...€204 Bn.

Via ·


This is incredible. The NUI PR manager must have been on holidays when this decision was made. the end of the day, the Irish people voted Bertie's incompetent shower of buffoons into power THREE TIMES!

We got what we deserved. Please show me a more politically uneducated country in the west than us?

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Alot can be said about Bertie. A key player with Tony Blair, David trimble and John Hume in bring peace to this Island. Transformed Industrial relations in Ireland and improved beyond recognition the economy and infrastructure in the country and as a result our Health service and Education service and Social services are at a different level compared to 20 years ago. Absolute outstanding leader of this country despite what keyboard warriors might say.   

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