Monday 22 July 2019

What Brian and Mary did next

They held the two top political jobs in the State until Fianna Fail's poll disaster -- so how are Brian Cowen and Mary Coughlan rebuilding their lives?

How now, Brian Cowen?: the
former Taoiseach walking
with the family dogs, Sparky
and Darcy
How now, Brian Cowen?: the former Taoiseach walking with the family dogs, Sparky and Darcy

It's Friday night in Digan's pub in Tullamore and Brian Cowen strolls in the door on his own and sidles up to the counter. Other regulars don't bat an eyelid as he takes his perch on a bar stool and orders a pint of Carlsberg.

His attire is much the same as it was when he was Taoiseach -- a dark suit and striped shirt. But there is something different about him.

Physically, the 51-year-old looks more rested. He has just arrived home after holidaying in the west of Ireland where he has a mobile home in Connemara.

His suit, which had started to look baggy on him as the pressures of his last days in office took their toll, is fitting more snugly now.

It takes a few minutes for other drinkers to notice he is there and soon they start shuffling over one by one to talk to him. By now he has become used to their questions.

Everywhere he goes, people ask: "Well, what are you doing with yourself these days, Brian?"

His answer is always the same. "I'm just taking a few months out."

Across the road from Digan's is one of the most successful legal firms in the midlands -- O'Donovan and Cowen Solicitors. Cowen's name went above the door in the 1980s and it's still there today. His desk is free if he ever wants to rejoin but he has given no indication that he is likely to do so.

There is no great pressure on Cowen to work, with a pension of €150,000 a year allowing him to have a free and easy lifestyle.

According to those close to him, the past few months have mostly involved time spent enjoying the simple pleasures in life. He has been catching up with old friends, enjoying his summer holidays, going to the odd GAA match at O'Connor Park in Tullamore and having a few pints, followed by a bag of chips on the way home.

In the words of Barry Cowen, who took the seat vacated by his brother in Laois-Offaly, "Brian is a private citizen now. He has left public office".

Although he still readily agrees to go to any local functions he is invited to, there are some things he cannot do.

One of his friends joked last week that his wife Mary can't bring him to help with the shopping because it would take them all day to get around the supermarket, such is the number of people who stop to chat with him.

And unlike many other political retirees, he has little interest in spending his days on the golf course. In fact, at most he plays a round once a month.

Many of the idle hours are now filled with reading. Cowen's main areas of interest are political memoirs and sports.

He still occasionally travels to Dublin on Fianna Fail business. Some close to him have described this as tying up loose ends.

The adjustment cannot be easy and it is debatable whether he has yet managed to come to terms with his dramatic fall from grace.

RTE and TV3 have both courted Cowen to do interviews for television documentaries on the collapse of Fianna Fáil in recent weeks but he has put them off and is reluctant to step back into the limelight.

The former Taoiseach's reversal of fortune was nowhere more starkly illustrated than during the visit of US President Barack Obama in May.

Just 14 months beforehand, Cowen had been exchanging pleasantries as he presented Obama with a bowl of shamrock to mark St Patrick's Day at the White House. Cowen played no small role in convincing the US president to visit his ancestral home in Moneygall, Co Offaly.

But instead of being brought to meet Obama when the presidential helicopter touched down in the village, Cowen, his wife Mary and daughters Meadhbh (13) and Sinead (19), stood with other onlookers on the pavement behind the security barriers.

Cowen was also absent when Obama went for a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes's bar. Offaly County Council officials had discretion over who could join Obama in the pub, but Cowen didn't make the list.

Cowen was only 24 when he became the youngest member of the 24th Dáil after winning a by-election following the sudden death of his father Ber. He developed a reputation as a formidable debater and within seven years became Minister for Labour.

Cowen would later hold the health, foreign affairs and finance cabinet portfolios before succeeding Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach in 2008.

But if his ascension in politics was rapid, so too was his demise. Within three years of assuming the leadership, he would become the most unpopular Taoiseach the country has ever had, shouldering much of the blame for the country's economic woes.

And despite shining brightly for much of his career, his ultimate legacy will be an IMF/EU bailout which could cripple the prospects of generations to come.

The opinion held of him by many of his former constituents in Tullamore is somewhat kinder. Some believe Cowen was "fierce unlucky with his timing".

"His supporters are going through the seven stages of grief. They're still not over what happened," said one friend of Cowen's. "They're bewildered and there's still sadness, shock and anger. Some of them are annoyed at the situation -- they still can't understand what happened with Brian. People are wondering now if he was ever cut out to be a leader.

"It's a terrible pity because everyone here was so relieved that the Bertie era was finished. They thought that Brian Cowen would change all that and be straight talking. Maybe he just got overwhelmed by the economic crisis," he said.

Despite all the criticism he has endured, Cowen has consistently denied being personally hurt by it. Many who know him have their doubts about this and believe he is maintaining a brave face. One man who spoke to him when Offaly were playing a championship match earlier this summer, said he seemed "withdrawn".

"He was chatting away but he didn't seem to be himself. Then again, he hasn't been in great humour since 2008 when all the problems in the country started."

Amid the gloom there have been a couple of high points for Cowen since he left political life. He enjoyed seeing his former constituency secretary, Sinead Dooley, who now works for Barry Cowen, getting elected as chairperson of Tullamore Town Council.

Before then, he obviously enjoyed seeing his brother elected as TD last February. According to confidants, above all other things, family life has been the main thing which has helped fill the vacuum left after so long in politics.

The family home in Ballard, a five-minute drive from Tullamore, has become something of a sanctuary for the former Taoiseach. He is frequently seen walking close to home with his family and their two dogs, Sparky and Darcy.

Friends say Cowen has been spending more and more time with his two daughters. There has been a lot of catching up to do as he missed many special occasions while he was sitting at the cabinet table for 16 of the last 19 years -- or his eldest daughter's lifetime.

Sinead, a pretty brunette, has a striking resemblance to her mother. She is living away from home during the year as she is studying in NUI Galway.

Her first year in university was tough as she had to listen to the constant criticism of her father from the public and the media during his final days in office. But a return home for the summer months has brought some respite and she has been able to relax by socialising with friends in Tullamore.

Despite the generally benign attitude towards Cowen in the Tullamore area, no chances are being taken with his security. Two gardai remain stationed in a security hut at the Cowen family home around the clock -- a perk afforded to former Taoisigh.

Their presence will help Cowen maintain the life he has now chosen.

Mary Coughlan Cooking up a new future

Cooking and running, two things that take time and practice.

Mary Coughlan never had that time because she had spent half her life in the corridors of power after going straight from studying social science in UCD to the Dáil.

Much of the year was spent in government meetings, local clinics, and driving between her home in Frosses, Co Donegal, and the Dáil in Dublin.

But now a 'normal' member of the public, the former Tánaiste has plenty of time on her hands to run the roads of Donegal and to cook for her family. "I'm still training," she confirmed to the Weekend Review.

Four years ago, she embarked on a major lifestyle change and managed to lose two stone in eight weeks.

Since her humiliating defeat in the last general election, she has been taking more time to run and cycle -- and to spend time with her husband, Garda David Charlton, and their children, Cathal (14) and Maeve (12).

"We're spending a lot of time together as a family," she said this week as her children prepared for school.

But the 46-year-old declined to be interviewed about life outside of politics, saying she has "broken my promise only once".

"I said I wouldn't do any interviews, I turned everything down," she said as she answered the door to the family home dressed in an apron.

"The one time I broke that promise was for the funeral of Brian Lenihan".

But just because she's out, it doesn't mean she plans to stay out.

"We'll see how these boys (the current government) get on," she said.

"We'll let the hare sit on that."

But by the time the next election rolls around in 2016, Mary will already be earning her pension.

She received a lump sum of €353,000 for 23 years' service in the Dáil --and when she hits her 50th birthday in four years' time she can start drawing down an annual pension of €140,000.

Feelings are mixed in Donegal on whether she should enter the political arena again, where she previously held a number of portfolios, including Agriculture, Social Protection and Enterprise.

Although local politicians -- both Fianna Fáil and otherwise -- have a huge amount of respect for the mother-of-two, young people are not quite so forgiving.

"They (the former government) thought they were being smart," said one 26-year-old whose two brothers have been forced to emigrate.

"But I'm not smart and even I could see where it was going wrong."

Most support Sinn Féin and have little time for what is viewed as the cosy politics of Fianna Fáil and the mistakes it made -- and all agree that the Fianna Fáil brand and the decisions the party made in government caused her huge damage.

"She's not at all hanging her head in shame," said one local councillor. "She's very prolific most of the time and I saw her out and about in the town (Donegal) with her mother the other day.

"But it was the Sligo Hospital cancer issue that crucified her. The people wanted a centre of excellence there but instead they now have to travel to Galway."

Elected when she was just three months shy of her 22nd birthday, Mary won her Dáil seat after her father Cathal passed away.

But despite spending half her life in the Dáil, some feel she didn't do enough for the area.

"She's very well liked in the area and if she was asked to do something, to go to a local event, she'd do it," said one former publican.

"But some people feel that south west Donegal didn't really reap the opportunities that were available (during the Celtic Tiger era). I don't know if the area is any better off than it was 20 years ago."

But Brendan Byrne, a Fianna Fáil councillor and former director of elections, vehemently supported her and her record.

"She's given 24 years of her life to the job," he said.

He said a large number of schools have enjoyed capital improvement programmes and he believes that five road projects which were recently axed would be going ahead if they still had some "influence" in the Dáil.

He hopes that she will consider returning to politics in the next election.

Just two weeks ago she became embroiled with some local councillors -- but it was all for a good cause as she joined other local representatives to take part in a cook-off during a local community day in Frosses.

The cooking tips were undoubtedly welcome -- something she admits she has had little time to do until now.

After being appointed as Agriculture Minister, she said in interview: "I have huge political experience, the minute I left college I went straight into politics. So, therefore, I wouldn't have had a huge experience outside of politics, which can be difficult because you do miss out on a lot of things."

Now she has five years to catch up on those things.

"She's a great local politician," said one local.

"But she was out of her depth a lot of the time. Going to every funeral and shaking every hand isn't what Ireland needs any more."

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