Wednesday 24 July 2019

Cowen feels the hand of history

Brian Cowen with members of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party
Brian Cowen with members of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party

Lise Hand

AS Brian Cowen walked through a standing ovation in the packed ballroom, it was clear the weighty hand of history had just brushed against his shoulder for the first time.

He made his way past the rows of cheering Government ministers, senators and TDs, past the banks of TV cameras and huddle of photographers, past the rows of journalists before coming to the front-row seats occupied by his wife Mary and his eldest daughter Sinead.

Finally, he took one small step up onto the platform. But it was a giant leap out from behind the formidable shadow of Bertie Ahern and into the lonely white-hot spotlight of what he described as "the biggest political job in the country". It was, he said, "a proud occasion" for him.

As he stood on the stage in the ballroom of the College of Physicians, staring at the sea of faces before him and portraits looking down from the walls of stern-faced men long gone, he seemed acutely aware that as the seventh leader-designate of Fianna Fail and 11th Taoiseach-in-waiting, he was about to make the transition from being a minor footnote in the unfolding history of the nation to becoming the author of a whole new chapter.

"On a personal level, I am excited by the challenge, if somewhat daunted by the responsibility," he said. "That sense of responsibility is rooted in the history of the party and the achievements of its leaders".

But it wasn't all solemnity yesterday. Cowen may be the Taoiseach-in-waiting, but he's quickly learned that despite his wishes, he can't prevent the media from working itself into a tizzy over the current game of Cabinet snakes and ladders and leave him in peace to mull over his options.

But since Fianna Fail refused to engage in a buckets-of-blood contest for the leadership, the press pack has been left to amuse itself with endless ruminations over reshuffles.


And much as they pretend to be above such idle speculation, none of the main contenders for promotion to Tanaiste or a major ministry can get through a full day without pronouncing with sincerity into a flurry of mics the phrase "glad to serve in whatever capacity . . ."

But if Cowen was in any doubt as to the eagerness of his new cohort of troops to place themselves firmly in the eyeline of the party's new commander-in-chief, it must surely have been dispelled on the plinth of Leinster House yesterday morning.

At 9.25, the doors of the room where the parliamentary party had just crowned Brian the High King of Fianna Fail were flung open wide. Ignoring an admonition from party chairman Seamus Kirk that the deputies should proceed "in an orderly fashion" to the plinth for the family photo, the posse of politicians scarpered.

They pegged it down the main corridor of power and stormed through the two doors like it was the first day of Clery's Christmas sale. And leading the charge like the cartoon Tasmanian devil scattering everything in his path was Senator Donie Cassidy. The man has an in-built GPS navigation system which directs him unerringly to the side of the Chief in any photo opportunity, and when the dust settled on the plinth as the rows of Fianna Fail faithful surrounded the new leader, there was Donie on the front pew, with only Tom Kitt between himself and Brian.

The snappers frantically tried to get the large gang into a single frame. "Get to the edge," one photographer implored a few stragglers. "We're all on the edge," retorted Mary O'Rourke tartly.

But then Brian looked around and noticed that there was something missing from the front row. There wasn't a woman in sight. Then he caught sight of Marys Hanafin and Coughlan having a natter together at the end of the second row. "Mary, Mary!" he roared. It wasn't entirely clear which Mary he was promoting to the front bench, but neither one was taking a chance. Both of them hustled to his call with an alacrity that would make the feminist arm of the sisterhood weep.

There was a genuine atmosphere of exuberance on the plinth as the Soldiers of Destiny threw their arms in the air and cheered for the cameras. As the formal shoot broke up, the scrum of snappers swamped Cowen. "Put your hands in the air just one more time," pleaded one, as he good-naturedly rolled his eyes skywards and obliged.

As Cowen posed for the mob, one figure quietly detached himself and walked back towards Leinster House, surrounded by a small handful of deputies, but no photographers. Bertie turned to one of his companions, Dublin South West TD Charlie O'Connor. "Happy birthday Charlie," he said, before he slipped away.

However, a couple of hours later it was a noticeably more nervous Cowen who was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd packed into the ballroom of the College of Physicians. It was his first formal press conference as leader-elect of Fianna Fail, and like a child warned not to fidget during Mass, he sat motionless for the first half, fielding the questions fluently but cagily. When he finally began to relax and throw a few shapes to illustrate his points, the relieved click-click of camera shutters went into frenzy.

"Welcome to the media spotlight," offered one reporter, all innocent politeness. Cowen smiled wryly.

For he knows he's well and truly spotlit now. As a sociable soul who is fond of his gargle, he is smart enough to know that a front-page picture of him in full Rabelaisian cry wouldn't exactly help his transition from Biffo to statesman.

He was asked about how he felt about becoming Taoiseach in the era of camera-phones and citizen journalism. "I'm about to take on the biggest political job in the country," he told RTE's Sean O'Rourke. "I recognise there's a few things that I'll have to reshape, to put it that way, and I'll do that. Not to the extent that you won't recognise me when you see me," he added spiritedly.

Despite Labour leader Eamon Gilmore's comment yesterday that there would be "no honeymoon" for Brian, it's likely that he will have a bit of a breathing-space to figure out how he will approach the gig of Taoiseach. Everyone in the Cabinet is his pal until he announces the new appointments, and judging by the lusty roars on the plinth during the photoshoot, the parliamentary party regard him as a bit of a rock star.

It's still the rehearsal really. The spotlight goes on full blast when he steps into the chamber as Taoiseach on May 7. Then we'll see if he can reach for the stars.

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