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Alison O'Connor: Room for pity as Cowen faces last days at helm


Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his wife Mary

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his wife Mary

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his wife Mary

HOW could you not feel sorry for him in the end? He stood there doing what almost everyone else had told him was the best and only course of action, but you knew he didn't really accept the verdict.

A good man, done down, by himself admittedly, but still a decent man.

At 51, Brian Cowen has lived more than a quarter-century of his life in the public eye, virtually always as a success.

From being one of the brightest boys in Mount St Joseph's in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, he moved on to being one of the brightest stars in Leinster House and then the Cabinet, and eventually as Taoiseach.

Now he has a career that is in shambles, and at some level must realise that he will be remembered as the man who brought the party he loves so dearly to its knees, and the country almost along with it.

It must take one hell of a mindset shift -- after decades of being told he was and treated as an intellectual giant with a stunning political talent -- that those who once adored you within the party now look on you as toxic, and that a majority of the public feel the same way.

It's impossible to tell how anyone will shape up a a political leader. How come Eamon Gilmore worked and Pat Rabbitte, a (deserved) media darling, didn't? In hindsight, though, the warning signs about Cowen were always there but they were easier to ignore on the basis of the plusses that he seemed to offer.

As a younger journalist who covered his time in the Department of Health, I came into contact with him on a regular basis. I found Cowen intellectually one of the most impressive people I had ever met.

He had a certain charm, great wit, and also a shyness, and a definite sense of public service about him. When you'd come across him having a sneaky cigarette just ahead, for example, of an official launch or opening on Ash Wednesday, it was difficult to feel too judgmental.

But the concerns about his lifestyle lurked, as well as his application to the job and his tendency to throw almost impenetrable jargon into his public utterances.

There was always the hope and expectation that when he became Taoiseach he would respond in the appropriate way -- after all, he is terribly bright, isn't he? But that's the way with some people, they can be terribly bright in some ways and in others, such as where some common sense is needed, they can be remarkably dense.

I've seen it written that Cowen has had more abuse, and of a personal nature, heaped on his shoulders, than any other political leader before him. You can't argue with that.

The problem, though, was how much of it he attracted himself through an absolute refusal (or at least it seemed that way) to engage in any sort of self-examination and his abject failure to be the kind of political leader the Irish people needed at this time.

In fact, for a people battered and broken from years of bad economic news, he merely added to the trauma by putting in such differing performances -- one day up, positive and maintaining a high profile, the next surly, defensive and like a bear with a sore head. As a worried citizen looking for reassurance, it was the equivalent of being on an emotional see-saw.

I wrote on this page on Saturday about the role I believe alcohol has played in Cowen's downfall, and it is not something that can be ignored.

If we are to learn a lesson as a society, it is that alcohol can such be a destructive force not just within families but in society and politically.

Squirming away from the topic out of fear of appearing prurient has done us no favours. But at lunchtime on Saturday this element of the situation merely added to my sense of sympathy.

Brian Cowen maintained his dignity on Saturday, but there were sparks of the old belligerence. He was being forced out and everyone knew it, but he insisted it was on his "own counsel" that he had decided to go.

It was poignant when he said he had discussions the night before with his family and he thanked the women in his life, his wife Mary and their two daughters, Sinead and Maedhbh, for their support to him. We've no way of knowing what was his wife's advice when her husband returned home to Tullamore on Friday night, but clearly he sought her counsel.

As the old cliche goes, he will soon have far more time to spend with his family, but you get the sense he will be a long time wondering how it all turned out like this.

Irish Independent