Tuesday 17 September 2019

Lise Hand: Cowen finally finds voice among the party faithful

Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv set sail for Aranmore in the Donegal South West by-election campaign
Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv set sail for Aranmore in the Donegal South West by-election campaign

Lise Hand

Brian Cowen looked worn, diminished. Beside him on the podium of Government Buildings, an ashen-faced Brian Lenihan looked stricken.

The Taoiseach was being harangued by journalist Vincent Browne who demanded to know why he wasn't resigning, now that the Government has been forced to go cap-in-hand to Europe in search of a massive, mind-boggling dig-out to keep this nation from going broke.

"You are the person now still holding public office who is most culpable for screwing up this country," charged Vincent.

But this Taoiseach doesn't see it like that. He might be head of a Government that has unleashed the economic Furies on this land, but his head isn't for toppling.

He looked at the irate journalist as a forest of cameras trained on him.

"I don't accept your contention, the premise of your question, that I'm the bogeyman that you're looking for, no," he answered quietly.

What a strange 24 hours Brian had just lived through. What a stark difference from the last stage he stood on, just the evening before, in Donegal. In a head-whirling day he had gone from boss man to bogeyman.

For on Saturday night, Brian wasn't lost for words. No. The Taoiseach found his voice in a community hall tucked away in a north-west corner of the island in Donegal, more than 200km away from the capital where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was pondering over the economic future of Ireland.

And his audience was comprised of about 400 Fianna Fail party faithful, including backbench TDs, ex-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and a few ministers.

For just under an hour he stood on a stage and he let fly. There was no apology, of course. Brian doesn't do that. But it was an apologia -- a passionate defence of what he and his Government did and why they did it. He tore into his critics who had branded him a liar, a traitor.

"You can look at my career, look at it upside down and inside out, ask any question about any decision I ever took, I took it because I believed it was in the best interests of the country," he said fiercely. "Do I believe I got every decision right? No, only a fool would suggest that."

So where did he find his voice? In the heart of our national democracy, the chamber of Dail Eireann? During a state of the nation address on the national airwaves? At a big public event attended by a big number of concerned citizens fearful of what the future holds for their fragile country?

When he took to the stage of the Castlefinn hall for a party rally in support of Brian O Domhnaill, their candidate in the Donegal South West by-election, there was no sign of what was to come. Brian had been calm all day as he campaigned on Arranmore island and around Glenties and Ardara.

There was only one reporter in the hall -- speeches from the Taoiseach rarely (if ever) yield nuggets of news or food for thought. There have been too many false dawns, promises that this time he would connect with an electorate crying out for leadership.

But within two minutes, this speech took flight.

"I want to talk tonight about lies, because it has become, unfortunately, the new lexicon, the new vocabulary of modern politics; and it's ugly and I don't like it, and it's not required," declared Brian.

"What I will not accept from any political opponent (is) the charge of treason or liar."

He faced up to the accusations that dog his party -- "the charge is that Fianna Fail looked after individuals at the expense of the public interest," he said.

"Well I want to say here from this platform that I was never involved in a government with any leader of my party that ever sought to make such a decision at any time. It's not to suggest that we got everything unanimously right, but I defy those who continue with that charge; it is to say clearly that I am beholden to nobody, never have been, never will be, only to the people of Ireland," he shouted as the crowed roared.

This wasn't a speech from the neck up -- his whole body practically levitated from the stage as he wrestled to express himself.

He defended the Government's fateful September 2008 decision to create the bank guarantee, and excoriated Eamon Gilmore for Labour's opposition to what Brian called a move "critical" to the stability of the country.

"That's the decision he took and he'll have to live with it. And that's the man who accused me -- that man accused me when I made that decision of making the greatest act of economic treason since the foundation of the State. What act of treason would it have been if you had a government who hadn't the courage to take that decision?" he blasted.

Was this why he decided to let loose? Of all the abuse and criticism hurled at Brian over the past two-and-a-half years, this is the one charge by Eamon that has never ceased to haunt him -- a taunt hurled inside the parliament, now on the record of the House forever.

Was it this, and the words of Yeats and Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone which have been flung in his face all week which prompted this cri de coeur?

Was it the stark shots of the IMF men arriving last week which finally woke him up?

Is that why he came to Donegal at this crucial, historic moment? Why he toured a remote county of heartbreaking beauty, of watercolour skies and rugged mountains and an empty, healing landscape kissed by the russet and purple adieu of autumn? Did he need some head-space before he faces into our coldest winter of discontent?

He must have known that even as he spoke back in Dublin on Saturday night, his Finance Minister was bowing to the grim, horrible inevitable.

"I've heard some people putting the fear of God into people as if this is something that was going to be Armageddon. What we're trying to do is repair the system. I have worked day and night," he testified, thumping the lectern.

"Day and night," he repeated.

But it was all too late, Brian. You can rage, rage against the dying of the light. There's no use crying how bright your frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.

Your tragedy -- and ours -- is that you couldn't unleash this call to arms to your country in peril, rather than to your party in meltdown.

Today, Taoiseach, is the 47th anniversary of the death of John F Kennedy, that Irish-American orator who moved mountains and began the journey that put men on the Moon.

Over his grave, his widow recited some of his favourite lines. "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."

Is that to be your political epitaph too, Taoiseach?

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss