Tuesday 13 November 2018

The day Cowen will never be allowed to f-f-forget...

John Cooney

Brian Cowen's off-stage but widely circulated use of the F-word is not a 'storm in a Taoiseach' as his supporters would have us believe. Although he is certainly not the first Taoiseach to use expletives -- Charlie Haughey transformed foul language in private into an art form -- he is the first to be caught doing so inside the Dail chamber.

Cowen's colourful unparliamentary language on his 13th day as Taoiseach when he was overheard on the Dail sound-system after a weak performance ordering his chief lieutenant Mary Coughlan "to bring in those f ... ers", will not be quickly forgotten.

Unlucky 13 it was, but this was not a one-off gaffe by an inexperienced politician. Politically, Cowen handed a huge psychological hostage to his would-be tormentors on the Opposition benches led by the unjugular but persistent Enda Kenny and the polite but prickly Eamon Gilmore. Both the Fine Gael and Labour leaders had calculated that Cowen was vulnerable sooner or later to fits of bad temper and gratuitously impatient intolerance.

However, neither Kenny nor Gilmore expected Cowen would so quickly and so carelessly gift them the opportunity of damning him "an intellectual giant but emotional dwarf". In the vocabulary of the school classroom, they will taunt the cross Cowen ruthlessly as lowly F-grade material. Righteousness is what Oppositions do best.

While Cowen is no stranger to the pavlovian gut of adversarial politics, he can console himself that he was lucky he did not commit the mortal offence of directing the F-word at the Opposition. He can thank Mary 'Mother' Harney for scolding politicians and journalists against any "holier than thou" wagging of the finger. She has a point. Brian Cowen is human. His popularity may even soar, especially as he was telling his Tanaiste to get her act together in the interest of consumers.

Yet, an imponderable question is how Cowen in the privacy of his own psyche responds to this unfortunate, self-inflicted verbal set-back. Can his unquestionable intellect control a foul-mouthed tongue? Or, at 48, are his naturally combative temperament and aggressive party political rhetoric too entrenched in his personality and character to be controlled in the heat of battle. Like the leopard, can Offaly's first Taoiseach change his spots?

What is clear is that the public perception of Cowen as street gurrier and platform fighter was not media myth, but is skin deep in his well-endowed frame, in spite of his unopposed succession to Bertie Ahern, and the accompanying adulation about his clarity of purpose, philosophical approach and intellectual stature.

Cowen knows that he must change his reputation as an unreconstructed hard man. No one knows better the softer side of the Brian Cowen who cried when Albert Reynolds was shafted by Dick Spring than his wife Mary, his astute soul-mate. No doubt, as wives do, she will have chided him for embarrassing their two daughters and herself in the unbecoming manner of the coarse television comedian, Rab C Nesbitt.

In the privacy of his home in Tullamore, Mary will have reminded Brian that he is now the Prime Minister of Ireland and President of Fianna Fail, not the manager of the local GAA team, a parallel which he invoked during his triumphant homecoming a fortnight ago.

It was a revealing moment when he told a rally in Ferbane that his taking office in difficult economic times was comparable to a GAA match where a team has to play "against the wind" in the second half. "You go out and you go in harder," he thundered. "You hit harder. You get to the ball quicker. You keep the ball low and you stick it over the bar, and you get 10 points in the second half, when you got only five points in the first half when you were asleep."

The hard lesson for Brian is that he took his eye of the ball -- or rather the microphone -- when he issued his command to Coughlan. In effect, he was telling his Minister for Enterprise that she was not on top of her game. By implication, too, he was signalling that her predecessor Micheal Martin was asleep in preventing British supermarkets and the petrol industry from ripping off Irish consumers since last August when the Sterling began its fall against the Euro. Merde!

Cowen's unintended admission that his Government hasn't a grip on runaway prices was a penalty kick for the gleeful Opposition which had roasted him during question time and which, unlike Chelsea's hapless captain John Terry in the European Championship final against Manchester United, seized its chance to boot the ball into the net. A chastened Cowen can console himself that this Opposition goal has come at the start of the season. On the positive side, he was being pro-active the moment he spotted the gaps in the Government's defence and took immediate steps to redress the weakness.

This contrast in style between Cowen's blunt-talking and Ahern's fudging worked to the former's advantage in his passionate commitment to direct the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign and reform the public service. His threat to expel any rebels against the Treaty from Fianna Fail displayed a disciplined leadership unforthcoming from Bertie, who allowed Eamon O'Cuiv to vote against the Nice Treaty, yet remain in his cabinet.

Now, the contrast between Cowen's confrontational persona and Bertie's conciliatory approach is rebounding. Bertie's effortless emasculation of the English language is being remembered fondly compared to Cowen's linguistic 'conduct unbecoming'.

The kudos which Cowen won for his appetite for decision-making and his appeal to patriotism a la Lemass are being overshadowed by a realisation that his bark is louder than his innate political conservatism.

While he chose a cabinet that balanced continuity with change, substantial criticisms are that he did not cull the junior ministerial ranks, which were bloated to 20 by Bertie, and he has wavered ungraciously on renouncing his pay increase ahead of the national wage negotiations in the current economic downturn.

What is worrying for Cowen is that before his audible accident, the media was sniffing a simmering disquiet in Fianna Fail at his dictatorial, autocratic and dogmatic approach to ministers and back-benchers.

While Transport Minister Noel Dempsey dismissed these stories as being based solely on anonymous sources, the makings of a plausible caricature of Cowen as a Billy Bunter bully with a Hitler moustache were emerging on account of his direct manner.

Cowen's unguarded language has reinforced his 'Herr Cowen' image. Dail sketch writers are canvassing Biffo-burlesque. Political journalists in their first draft of history are weighing up his imperious behaviour against his intellectual strengths, and asking if he is Taoiseach material. Cartoonists are having a field day.

Cowen needs to be at his confident best to succeed in the referendum both at home and on the world stage. He must strike a balance between confrontation and conciliation. However, if he feels an urge to let off steam, he should take a deep breath and read the Lisbon Treaty.

In portraying himself as 'the gaffer' intent on getting his team to pull up their socks, Cowen cannot be faulted. But a good football manager needs to motivate his players, not cower them, as when he kept prospective Ministers of State at their desks for hours awaiting a call-up.

A Taoiseach is not a football manager. He has to put his best foot forward as the tribune of the nation, not show the studs on his boots. Unwittingly, Cowen in a single sound-bite has caused umbrage to civil servants in Government departments, the National Consumer Agency, the oil companies and the supermarkets. This deserves a yellow card.

The unfortunate consequence of this off-play incident for Cowen is that if he directs a similar verbal velocity under fire at the Opposition in the Dail, he will face a red card.

He has marked himself as the "F ... ing Taoiseach." He needs to pick himself up and not be goaded by opponents who want him to stumble and fall on his tongue.

Too old and busy to attend anger management courses, Biffo must learn to be cunning as well as brainy.

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