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After a lifetime spent in politics, it's finally last orders for Brian Cowen


Brian Cowen. Photo: Collins

Brian Cowen. Photo: Collins

Brian Cowen. Photo: Collins

WHATEVER he decides to do, whenever the consultation process he has embarked upon comes to an end, the political career of the Taoiseach Brian Cowen is over -- that is certain. It may end today or tomorrow, if he decides to buckle this weekend; or it may happen a little later if any further disclosures were to emerge regarding his association with Anglo Irish Bank, back in the day.

Cowen is a cautious man, who plays his cards cagily. He also seems to be genuinely engaged in this process.

It is difficult, therefore, to know with certainty what he will decide to do; he is stubborn too, so his inclination will be to fight on.

It is more likely that his political career will come to an end in two months' time, after the election which will see the relative wipeout of the Fianna Fail party he still leads -- this in itself will be a seismic event, what we might call the end of history.

What an epitaph that will be: Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach who led Fianna Fail into oblivion after just 1,000 days . . .

He is not ready to go there just yet, though -- not while a shred of saving grace still exists. If he decides to withstand this latest bout of pressure on his leadership it will be for one reason, which is that he would not want to be forced from office for something he feels he did not do.

In years to come, the Wikipedia narrative would read that Cowen had to resign in "disgrace"; he is acutely aware of that, and would want to avoid it at all costs.

But politicians seldom get to choose the manner of their leaving, of their return to a more normal existence, and it will be no different for Cowen.

It is his attachment to a more normal existence, or what had become a form of normality for him, that has led to his most drawn out of downfalls. The obituary may say that Cowen was brought down by a game of golf with the greatest rogue the country has ever seen; or by his inability to grapple with a worldwide recession; or by the banks in general, their half-truths or downright lies; or whatever. But the fuller truth is more subtle.

When all the media commentary, political spin and manoeuvring have evaporated, we will be left with a single issue at the heart of Cowen's rise and fall; in a word, it is drink.

Let me give you an alternative scenario to the one that is now being presented, one that may be closer to the truth . . .

Cowen became a TD in 1984, at the age of 24. He is now 51. He was spent most of his life, therefore, in Leinster House, rising slowly to become Taoiseach.

He comes from a background where people play it straight. You know the type. So let me get this out of the way: Brian Cowen is as honest as the day is long -- which is not to say that you must agree with his politics.

George Lee managed to stick just nine months of life in Leinster House. Cowen has been there for 27 years.

Leinster House has formed him, made him who he is today; its rules and regulations, friendships and camaraderie, even its history.

In that time, within the Dail's confines and outside, I would estimate that Cowen has drank around 40,000 pints of beer, probably more.

He has also done a lot of valid work, of course. Nothing spectacular perhaps, at least not outwardly, but valid nonetheless, and honest, and good work.

He has come to rely upon others too; civil servants, for example, people who can provide his legally trained mind with the detail upon which he may slowly form a judgement. That is the way he is.

Right now Cowen is feeling hard done by, perhaps with a little justification.

He works hard, spends long hours at his desk. He functions as he has always functioned, relying upon the detail provided to him and making judgment calls based on the best advice available; and then he goes home, or to the pub.

So far, so unspectacular but steady. "That is how you get respect," he said to me once by way of explaining his modus operandi. He has a point.

Exports are up -- booming, in fact -- and the budget deficit is down; there is a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we are coming out of this recession.

But it has taken its toll; a trail of economic destruction lies in its wake.

The potential for destruction was there when Cowen, as Taoiseach, presided over the last meeting of the Cabinet in July 2008 before the summer recess.

He never quite grasped the scale of the unfolding disaster, which is now all around us, until it was too late and he has been unsuccessfully playing catch-up ever since.

Back then he had no idea what was lay to in wait over the next two years.

Like many men of his class and background, the Taoiseach finds it difficult to turn down an opportunity to give it a lash especially when he feels it was deserved after a bout of work.

His friend Fintan Drury had business to attend to before the political establishment closed for summer, no matter what. Sean FitzPatrick wanted to meet the Taoiseach. Let's remember that back then Seanie was not quite the pariah he is now.

A few months earlier there had been a telephone call to the then Finance Minister, and then a dinner: now FitzPatrick hoped to meet the him, one-to-one.

Seanie may have had his own agenda, of course, as had those at the dinner in Heritage House -- and the other dinner, subsequent to the golf outing. But so too had Cowen, and it was not certain that those agendas would chime.

Cowen did not know that Anglo was about to leave the State bankrupt. Few if any knew that, no matter what they might now claim -- even if most suspected that there was something seriously amiss at the bank.

It may be that Cowen's agenda was relatively simple: after a few months in the top job, he just wanted to unwind.

In fact, I would say that was what was foremost on his mind: a bit of golf, steak and chips, a good bottle of wine and a few pints.

Of course, he might also get an insight or two from FitzPatrick but that would be secondary.

That is his life, and has been his life for 27 years. It is the life of many politicians: business, politics, carvery dinners and downing pints.

It is doubtful that Cowen undertook then or at any time to extend to Anglo the security of the State, solely based on friendships or acquaintances with the people he met that day. It is too big a leap to suggest that the Taoiseach would wilfully bankrupt the State to look after a handful of people he would not call friends but whom he knew, however loosely, through politics or the business of politics. But that is the nature of the political system we have, as highlighted by Goldman Sachs chairman Peter Sutherland at a conference in Dublin last week.

That is, there seems to be no proper method for people in business to meet people in politics other than through what the Taoiseach might call "socialising". None of this really matters, of course, in the great scheme of things.

It is the perception of it, rather than the reality, which is helping to bring Cowen down. And for that he has only himself to blame.

There is no point in him complaining about it either. He has been around long enough to know what it looks like, and what it looks like is all that seems to matter.

It may be no coincidence, either, that the two biggest controversies of Cowen's political life have related to his "socialising".

A few months ago it seemed as though he was hungover on air at a time when most people were commuting to work or on the school run; it was the beginning of the end, really.

Since then photographs have appeared -- snatched by mobile telephone -- of him in a different setting, at a different time, "socialising".

He may turn to work and adjudicate upon the facts as presented to him but an image of the Taoiseach remains and it is an image that people will not tolerate in this day and age. And much like what we call the economic crisis, or the sheer scale of the recession itself, Cowen has never quite managed to grasp the new reality of that either.

Sunday Independent