Facing down the toughest year in the life of Brian
The Taoiseach talks candidly about the banking crisis and his brand of leadership, writes Jody Corcoran
The Taoiseach is just back from RTE where he was interviewed by Gerry Ryan. I am in a room in Government Buildings ripping up my questions. It is Tuesday, around mid-day.
The day before, Brian Cowen had sat down with the country's political correspondents. You may have seen the television footage. He was at the head of a table; the journalists -- around 15 of them -- were alongside, asking questions you might expect.
It was the most difficult year of his political life . . . he would face the challenges of the coming year with the same sense of determination . . . there was now a degree of stability and confidence . . . there may or may not be a Cabinet reshuffle . . . of course he was appalled by the findings of the Murphy report . . . he didn't do grandstanding.
I wasn't at that gathering, having a week or so earlier bounced the Taoiseach into doing a one-to-one interview with me; although I am here now at the same table, or a similar one, ripping up my questions -- which is just as well, they weren't very good anyway.
His interview with Gerry Ryan was interesting -- not that his answers were illuminating -- in that Cowen came across as more engaging than he normally does.
Anyway, I am led into the Taoiseach's office. I have been here before, when I interviewed Bertie Ahern one Christmas. In that interview Bertie said, more or less, that he would never marry Celia Larkin. Within six months their relationship was over.
There would be no revelation of a similar scale from Cowen. His life is not as drama-filled as Bertie's is, or was. Still, I decide I had better try to rattle him a bit -- I am aware that I have been getting too pally with him lately -- although, I suspect, I'd have more success trying to rattle Bhudda.
The office is more or less the same as in Bertie's time. There is a Paul Henry west of Ireland landscape behind his desk, I think the same one as was always there; a portrait of Sean Lemass across the way, a Christmas tree in the corner, its lights on.
The Taoiseach is not in his office; he is freshening up in an en suite bathroom. I mooch around a little. His desk is tidy. I imagine if I rifle through his papers I'm bound to come across something interesting; but I was never going to do that.
Gerry Ryan had finished up by suggesting that the Taoiseach had lost weight recently; he wondered if he was on a diet. Cowen said he was not, and joked that he should be. There is a fruitbowl on his desk, mainly grapes and sliced apples, and a fork: when he appeared a few moments later, he had it as a snack.
The most interesting thing on his desk is an unthumbed book of Marcus Aurelius' work Meditations. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, was the last of the 'Five Good Emperors'. Meditations is the title of a series of personal writings setting forth his ideas on Stoic philosophy.
My colleague Eoghan Harris, being a fan, would probably tell you that Plato believed that the best possible heads of government were philosophers.
As emperor, Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world, yet was motivated by a desire for virtue, justice and peace rather than money, possessions and fame.
His writing has remained relevant for almost 2,000 years -- you would find Meditations on the desks of many leaders -- because he wrote as a man, not an emperor: he wrote about his fear, emotions, his sense of the fleetingness of life and the importance of living in and savouring the moment.
I would never have taken Cowen as a philosopher -- although he has had his moments -- it's just that he keeps it well hidden. He is stoic though. The book seems appropriate. At the end of the interview I ask about it. "It was a present," he said. "From whom?" I ask. "None of your business . . ."
I tell the Taoiseach that everything I was going to ask him has already been asked by the political correspondents and by Gerry Ryan. I say that, therefore, I am going to make this up as we go along.
"Sit down there," he said, gesturing to a coffee table and chairs. The Government press secretary decides to sit in, which I hadn't expected. I am a bit disappointed by this, but say nothing. "You've got 20 minutes now, remember, maybe 25," the press secretary reminds me.
I open up with a pre-amble about perception and reality, culminating by asking him what he thinks the public's perception of him is.
"Hopefully of a determined leader that works with a team and get the job done," he eventually says.
That, of course, is his hope, but might not necessarily be reality. There is a lot of anger out there, I tell him, anger that is actually strengthening, not lessening. I mention bankers seemingly getting away with it.
He replied: "There's three investigations going on. We have in this country an independent system of investigation and prosecution. Now I understand the frustration people have on this but the Director of Corporate Enforcement is doing a job, the Garda Fraud Office are doing a job, the Financial Regulator is doing a job.
"I have to get on with my job. So I want them to complete those investigations as soon as possible so that we can draw whatever conclusions have to be drawn from them, and the DPP can do whatever he has to do . . . it can't happen quickly enough in terms of trying to persuade public opinion. My job, at the moment, is to get on with the business of Government and ask that those people who are doing their job try and conclude it as quickly as they can. I can't determine that."
I suppose, I say, but point out that Bernie Maddox is in jail this Christmas while Seanie FitzPatrick is going around with a cappuccino in one hand and a gym bag in the other. There was one thing he could immediately do, which was to set up an Oireachtas inquiry into what went on in the banks in the last five to 10 years.
"Well, as I said, there are investigations going on . . . we don't want to cut across them, so they're successful in due course . . ."
I press him on why he is reluctant to set up an Oireachtas inquiry. He said: "I'm not coming to any conclusion on that at the moment, because I'm concentrating on the job at hand."
But, I remind him, the public is angry and he needs to channel that anger: "Yeah, but I'm also trying to engender confidence in the system. We have a banking system that is being restructured. We've got to keep confidence in the country and what it is that we're trying to do.
"The historical issues of how we got here is an issue that will happily be dealt with. There are already investigations going on, as I've said, and there's this idea that's coming from the governor of the Central Bank which has to be looked at and considered -- how you'd go about it, but let's deal with that eventually in due course."
JC: "A lot of people are still confused about Nama. The bottom line, from the beginning, was that it would get credit flowing again. When will credit start to flow, that's what people want to know?"
BC: "Credit flows again when we take the distressed assets off the books of the banks so that they concentrate on the loan book that is viable and is productive. That will bring more international confidence, the banks being able to do the job, and that'll bring more capital into the system.
"So we also have in our various acts and legislation passed to ensure that viable business propositions are supported. That's a case-by-case basis. But the important point is this: if we didn't legislate for Nama, and we don't implement what has to be done, the availability of credit to the system will continue to decrease because the banks wouldn't have the capacity to lend. So you're asking for the black-and-white answer to that question: until you put in the new structures, and you take the problem out of the system, you're not in a position to resolve the problem."
JC: "When will it be? Will it be March, April, February?"
BC: "Well the answer is that Nama will be operationalised in the new year. The transfer of assets begins then. During the course of the six months you're going to see the main part of that process implemented and arising out of that then you have the prospect of increased credit available . . . so during the course of 2010 we expect to see an improvement in the situation."
JC: "So it'll be the latter half of 2010 that credit begins to flow?"
BC: "Well, during the course of 2010, and in the meantime we have a system in place that seeks to ensure that banks are supporting viable business propositions."
Jack O'Connor, I remind him, says he is going to bring the country to a standstill in the New Year. "What do you need to say to Jack O'Connor?"
"I don't think anything . . . we need everyone working, who has a job and we need everyone working together where that's possible; so of course, as Taoiseach, I don't think bringing the country to a standstill will achieve anything."
JC: "But what are you going to do if he brings people out?"
BC: "I live in a democracy. If people decide to go on strike, what that does, of course, is put at risk the present situation as we have it. I mean it doesn't achieve anything, so when you say to me 'what's going to happen?' from my point of view, obviously what would happen is, if that's the case, strikes would be put in place for an objective that's not clear to me can be achieved.
"What's the purpose? We have to perceive the Budget as it is. We know a paycut is difficult for anyone but we don't have a choice here. We have to try and work through the system here based on the Budget we have. We don't have the money. If the argument is we go on strike if you can't give back our wages, or pay and conditions, I'm not in a position to do that."
JC: "I took the young lad to the doctor the other day, and the fee was €60. He had tonsillitis. It was actually €50 at the height of the boom. There is again the perception, and I think the reality, that fees for professional services -- let's say lawyers and doctors -- remain untouched. Is there any pressure that can be brought to bear on doctors and professions like them to lower their fees?"
BC: "The Government made a decision to reduce the costs the State has in these areas -- so we made the decision . . ."
JC: "Again, when is that going to happen?"
BC: "As soon as is feasible. As soon as possible, because the quicker they are implemented the greater the savings . . ."
JC: "You see, this is the thing: everything seems to happen slowly -- I mean you've been talking about Nama for a year now -- we've been talking about getting money back into the system and getting credit flowing again, and we're still talking about it . . ."
BC: "You're seeing legislation enacted. If you want to change the law, you've to go to the house and change it. I mean, these are not simple areas we're dealing with. We've had to legislate, and have a very intense debate about it, inside the house and outside the house, and I welcome that debate in the hope that it brings more clarity, in the hope that people will understand what's going on. But we are the first Government to bring forward that legislation so we're dealing with this as quickly as possible, consistent with . . ."
JC: "If I am sitting here with you this time next year and I'm paying €60 to see the doctor, will you admit to a failure then?"
BC: "We're going to reduce the fees of professionals who have contracts with the State, in terms of providing services, and we're doing it in the area of consultants, we're doing it in the area of doctors, other areas . . ."
JC: "You see it comes back to this again: everything being too little too late."
BC: "I don't accept that. We said we'd take €4bn out of the system and that's what we've done . . ."
JC: "Take judges -- it's the public perception again: 70 per cent have taken a voluntary pay cut, and it has to be voluntary, but the public won't be satisfied until the last judge takes a pay cut. If that were to happen it would/could go some way towards assuaging public anger."
BC: "I acknowledge that people are angry, but you have to . . . the separation of powers issue is here. But the Minister for Finance has made arrangements through the Finance Bill to make sure that there is a reduction by the judiciary in respect of their remuneration, their salaries, the same with public servants."
JC: "I was reading this morning where you say you don't grandstand. Do you think that maybe you should grandstand now and again? You're talking to me here in very measured tones as you did before . . . 'this is how we do things, and there's due process' . . . You know it mightn't do you any harm to grandstand now and again."
BC: "For effect?"
BC: "You see, we all have our own way of doing the job and I deal with the substance of the issues and get on with the job. Look, people have their own opinions on how I should do the job. I'm very clear on how I want to do it . . ."
JC: "I think I have finally got a grip finally on this thing, your leadership style: it is the antithesis of grandstanding. Do you think that, maybe, the public will come to see this is just the way you are, and acknowledge that and accept that, and perhaps your personal popularity and the Governments popularity and Fianna Fail's popularity may improve on the basis of that?
"Or do you not think that, for effect, if you did grandstand a bit, if you did stand up and make declarations of what you want to see happening, and when you want to see it happening, and how you want to see it happening, that it would be better politically for you?"
BC: "Well I'm doing that, I hope as best I can. You see, we have this conversation most of the time we meet. I am who I am. I've a job to do and I'm doing it with colleagues. It's a team game and I expect, and respect those with whom I work with, to get on with the job. That's how I see it.
"Others think that the Taoiseach's job should be of an executive presidential-type of job. We have our style, and that's the way I work. This is why, hopefully, I've gained respect in my position, on how I do things; that's the way I'm comfortable with doing this job, and I want people to know that it isn't any one person who's going to be the saviour of this nation.
"Everyone, every citizen, whether it's the Taoiseach's job or any other job in this Republic, we all have to work hard to try and get us out of this problem. My job is to try and bring people with me and, of course, at a time of difficulty and distress there are many clamouring for a different approach -- do it this way, do it that way -- I'm doing the job based on what this cabinet, what this Government believes. It's the right way to approach it."
JC: "You said your job is to bring people with you -- and this is a question on your leadership and I keep coming back to it. I don't mean to, but it's an area of fascination to me -- do you think you're bringing the people with you?"
BC: "I think more and more people are coming to recognise that there are tough decisions that have to be taken to get us out of this problem and if we postpone those decisions there will be a bigger problem."
JC: "Isn't that the definition of leadership -- that people follow. Or is that your definition of leadership?"
BC: "My definition of leadership is to be as straight as I can with the nature of the problem, tell the people what we're doing and why we're doing it and saying to the people that if we stick with this plan over the next few years, month in, month out, we will come out of this dilemma that we're in. That's what I'm saying to people. Now that's more, perhaps, the hard slog road than the brilliant idea that overnight we can just solve the problem. But that's the nature of the problem we have and that's what every other country has had to do."
JC: "This might seem a silly question, but in the next nationwide opinion poll, do you expect an increase in support and popularity?"
BC: "I don't know. I mean, hopefully there will be an increase. The time in which the future of this Government will be decided will be the day after the next election."
JC: "We've only 20 minutes so this is my last question -- when is the next general election going to be?"
BC: "It's due in May 2012."
JC: "Do you think Enda Kenny is one of your greatest assets?"
BC: "My job is concentrating on my job. But Enda -- he's doing all right, isn't he? He's doing all right. Isn't he?"
The Government press secretary then taps on his watch and that is that. We all troop outside for a photograph. I suggested the Taoiseach should take his overcoat, a long, dark one. He would look Statesman-like, I say. And a hat, I add. You should get yourself a black hat.
Next week: The Taoiseach on the future of the property sector; what to do when threatened with repossession and the trap of negative equity