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Alison O'Connor: Convivial Cowen and our political booze culture

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ON Thursday, I spent the day wondering what in the name of God was going on in Brian Cowen's head to make such an incredible cock-up with his efforts to reshuffle the Cabinet weeks before a general election.

I came to a number of conclusions about what might have caused this madness, but chief among them was drink.

It's not the first time I've come to this conclusion as I've followed his political career, and certainly not more recently as I've watched him run this country -- into the ground.

It is the view of a number of people, myself included, that just as the collapse of Lehmans, and the greed of the bankers and the behaviour of the bond markets have been factors in our spectacular collapse, so too has Cowen's drinking.

The issue of a person's alcohol intake is not something we like to tackle head-on in this country. It makes us squirm and we prefer to look on it as a "private" matter.

Throughout Cowen's political career it is something that has frequently been spoken about privately by colleagues and journalists. In the early days it would be written how he "liked a pint".

In fact, some of the drinking stories surrounding the Offaly man were legend, and since it never seemed to interfere with work, there was an element of "sure, what harm, it's his own business".

I remember as a health correspondent, at a time when he was Minister for Health in 1998, how we had a bit of a smirk at the back of the room on the day he launched a national alcohol awareness programme, addressing us about how important it was to control your drinking before it controlled you.

Irish politics is so male dominated and macho that it wasn't seen as a problem, at least not a significant one, and in fact during those days when he and Micheal Martin were spoken of as possible next leaders of Fianna Fail, there were certain sections of the party who had a disdain for Martin's "clean living" and how he liked to eat fruit and drink green tea in the Dail self-service for his breakfast, and wasn't into drinking pints and singing songs in the bar late at night.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Cowen, who loved nothing more than to be found in the thick of a singsong at 4am somewhere, or to be photographed swigging champagne by the neck, and sounding every bit of it the next morning, but not really worrying about that because he always got away with it and his intelligence managed to carry him through.

The 'Morning Ireland' broadcast from a hotel in Galway last September was not the first time that the Taoiseach sounded as hungover as hell on the radio, but it was just the first time that he was called on it publicly. Even then, there were many Irish people who felt that a line had been crossed when a man was being put under scrutiny concerning his alcohol intake, and that it just wasn't the done thing.

Even prior to the Garglegate incident becoming a worldwide phenomenon, the level of the Taoiseach's drinking was something that had been getting more scrutiny. He spoke about it in an interview with the 'Sunday Independent'. "What about the drinking? You know what they say," is how journalist Jody Corcoran put it to him.

"That's not an issue at all, to be honest. I relax now and again with friends. I try and do the normal things that normal people do. It's overstated, this drinking thing," was Cowen's response and he denied that he was depressed, even though this rumour, too, was "doing the rounds".

But I can't help thinking that Cowen has had an issue with alcohol for a number of years and the erraticism that this invariably causes has greatly affected how he has run this country.

How else to explain the lengthy periods of almost sullen silence, countered by sudden bursts of high-profile media appearances pledging action.

How many times have we scratched our heads at how, at certain times, and with certain unknown triggers, he could sound just like the Taoiseach we needed at this time of great distress. Just 48 hours later he could turn up sounding like a broken, yet cranky man.

Last Sunday night, he stood in front of television cameras, putting on as impressive a performance as we have ever seen from him, projecting a determination and vigour which definitely contributed to him winning the motion of confidence in his leadership on Tuesday night.

By Thursday, though, we saw the return of a spectacular lack of judgment and an inexplicable lack of awareness of the fallout from his ludicrous plan to bring in a slew of FF "young guns" to Cabinet who would apparently manage to turn the party's fortunes around in the space of a few weeks ahead of the election.

It's a tragedy for Cowen and for his family, and for the party that he loves but which he appears to have almost destroyed, and for the rest of us.

This is a decent man whose intelligence I once admired hugely and who came to the office of Taoiseach with such promise. But he is left with a legacy in tatters and we with an economy in exactly the same state.

I can't help but wonder how things would have turned out if he had been "called" on this issue a long time ago.

However, denial has been the modus operandi on all sides as we dealt with this issue.

Irish Independent