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Loss of respect mixed a bitter cup for Cowen

THE text message flew around like wildfire on Saturday night week last: Brian Cowen was in the Brewery Tap in Tullamore. At the time, the Taoiseach had not yet announced his intention on whether he would go, or stay to lead Fianna Fail into the election.

I rang a friend whom I rightly suspected would be in the pub. "Not at all," he said, "if he's anywhere, he's below in Wrafter's, in the snug; that's where he drinks these days."

So he rang another man whom he rightly suspected would be in Wrafter's off Market Square, a more discreet part of town, and the message came back that neither was Cowen there.

In all likelihood, Brian Cowen was at home that night, putting the finishing touches to a strategy that would see off the leadership threat of Micheal Martin, the now ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs, the new heir apparent.

In fact, word is, the Taoiseach has eased up considerably on the drink these past few months, as he had said he would do post-Galway; that is, after his by now infamous interview on Morning Ireland, which caused Mary Hanafin to tell us that the leader of our country is not a morning person, whatever that may mean.

You would have to admit that he looks better for having so eased up: he has lost weight; his skin is clearer, for example, so much so that a woman I know speculated recently as to whether he had taken to wearing make-up.

In terms of backroom politicking then, if nothing else, Cowen's seeing-off of Martin last Tuesday was, well, impressive, in so far as it goes, but it does not go very far, maybe only to the point of irrelevancy, in the great scheme of things.

And the scheme of things is great indeed.

Let us start with the other events of last week which may have escaped your attention . . .

The ESRI says that nominal growth will be 0.75 per cent less than it had predicted just three months ago; a consequent re-negotiation of the EU-IMF bailout deal is more necessary than ever; the emigration of 1,000 people every week for the next two years is postulated.

You can go further back than just last week, of course.

The scheme of things has been great for many years now; when Cowen was Minister for Finance, and, certainly, since he was elected Taoiseach on May 7, 2008.

So great, indeed, that urgent decisions were already needed even as he embarked on a tour of Offaly, pausing along the way that the camera men might record him gulping down a pint of stout.

Oh, what decisions they were, the weight of sound judgement so heavy, almost every hour of every day, from the monumental bookend moments of Cowen's disastrous regime and at all points in between.

Those bookend moments were the issue of a blanket bank guarantee scheme in September 2008 to the negotiation of an average 5.8 per cent interest rate on the EU-IMF bailout billions in November 2010.

In between, there were many other actions needed, of course, but which were not taken, not in a timely manner when all haste was necessary, in itself symptomatic of the tardiness which could be the motif of his leadership.

"It's relentless," Cowen said in September 2009; "Boom, boom, boom," he said, punching the air, when I interviewed him in Tullamore, when he was asked if he drank too much and when he said that he did not.

Take last August, for example, when Standard & Poor's, the ratings agency, downgraded Ireland's credit rating -- a crucial moment in the latest wave of the crisis, which, ultimately, has led to the arrival of the EU-IMF.

"Markets waited and waited and since they saw no policy reactions, they started to lose confidence in the course of the summer," a senior official with the European Central Bank said recently.

This is the analysis of Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi: "Remember there was a downgrade -- in August -- but there was no policy reaction, no announcement that a tough budget was in preparation and no announcement of the measures.

"The loss of confidence also affected the banking system and this created a spiral which led to the crisis, and in the end the request for financial assistance."

Where was Brian Cowen when this was happening? He was in a caravan, in a discreet part of deepest Connemara, emerging for a day to play a round of golf with Donie Cassidy, and to have a bit of dinner and a few pints afterwards.

Such hesitancy had, by then, become the norm: Budget 2010 was forced upon him; Budget 2009 showed catastrophic poor judgement, which brought pensioners to the streets.

In the end, it came down to a question of judgement: when a politician has lost the respect of the people, when they no longer trust the soundness of his judgement, he has lost everything, and it was the loss of that respect, more than anything, which led to the resignation of Brian Cowen as leader of Fianna Fail yesterday.

Yet he remains as caretaker Taoiseach, an anomaly certainly, and clumsy in the making, one which the opposition will attempt to exploit, but which the public may feel inclined to put up with for the few weeks to the election.

After the events in Leinster House last week, there were more people than ever who were questioning the soundness of the judgement of Brian Cowen; but there were also many who suspected it before the return of GUBU.

The Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, in a radio interview, gave voice to his doubts last week, in the context of the Taoiseach in Druids Glen to play golf, eat, drink and be merry with Seanie FitzPatrick, of all people.

Others question Cowen's account of another dinner just a few months earlier with the board of Anglo Irish Bank, at a time of the unfolding of seismic events at the bank, a comfortable dinner which, we are told, involved yet more wine and beer.

It seems possible that, at that dinner, a request may have been made of the then Finance Minister, to the effect that he might lean on the National Treasury Management Agency somewhat.

There is no evidence that Cowen so leaned: the point is this, however; by his own admission we know that he can not recall if such a request was actually made of him.

Until last week, perhaps his greatest misjudgement relates to Galway, and it was two-fold; firstly to stay up drinking, and singing, until after 3am and then to go on radio, later than scheduled, close to 9am the following day.

The threat to his leadership became real, for the first time, after that particular escapade; and it was then that Brian Cowen decided not to give up, but to ease up on the drink.

As I said last week, it is no co-incidence that the greatest controversies of his regime revolve around his relationship with alcohol; neither, presumably, is it accidental that his performance as Taoiseach seemed to improve somewhat when he decided to forsake the jar, relatively speaking.

Which is why Brian Cowen was not in the Brewery Tap last Saturday night, nor was he in Wrafter's, nor Hughie Lynch's, nor in any of the other hostelries in Tullamore he is known to frequent, although he may well be out and about tonight enjoying a few pints, as they say.

On Tuesday night, however, when he first saw off the challenge of Martin -- but, ultimately, yesterday, was forced to bow to the inevitable -- it is said that he did allow himself a celebratory drink or two with what has become known as the Bar Lobby, that is, his drinking buddies.

He was back in the Dail bar on Wednesday, too, the day before the calamitous events which unfolded in Leinster House, with his pals, where it may seem as if he designed a plank of the Fianna Fail election strategy on the back of a beer mat.

Accounts vary, but most agree that he was in the Dail bar at about 6pm, and left after 8pm.

At around 6.30pm, Dermot Ahern rang John Gormley to declare that he was fit and well, and, therefore, willing and able to continue as Minister for Justice: a few hours later he would resign as minister.

The only conclusion is that at some time after his discussion with the leader of the Greens, Dermot Ahern was pressed by an emboldened Taoiseach to announce his resignation.

For some time now it was the intention of Brian Cowen to freshen his Cabinet early in 2011; to bring in long overdue young blood; such a team, he would have hoped, to lead Fianna Fail into a General Election some time in 2012.

But that best laid plan was ripped to shreds in November, the moment the Greens threw their hands in the air and said the election should be held in January.

Clutching the remnants of his plan, catastrophically, the Taoiseach decided to press on regardless last week, buoyed up, as he was then, by his winning of a motion of confidence in his leadership.

If he had acted more promptly, he could -- indeed, should -- have introduced the so-called young guns long ago, back in February and March of last year, for example, upon the resignation from Cabinet of Willie O'Dea and Martin Cullen.

He chose, instead, to replace them with men aged 63 and 58, the latter of whom was recovering from a serious illness which would subsequently dictate that he would not contest the election.

Or he could have done so when Dermot Ahern first intimated to him, reportedly in October, that he, too, would not be contesting the election, although many knew some months beforehand that the presence of Ahern's name on the ballot was in doubt.

Or he could have done it at any stage, perhaps by asking Mary Harney to stand down, her weariness with a difficult post apparent for all to see for some time now.

In fact, he could have done it at any number of perfectly timed occasions, and there were many, before the Greens imploded upon the arrival of the EU-IMF and declared that the lifetime of the Government was at an end.

But he chose to do it -- "my way," no doubt -- at perhaps the worst possible moment, when it was as plain as a pikestaff that it would be interpreted not as strategy, as he would wish, but as a stroke, as he would not.

Worse still, the sequence of events indicates that he chose to implement this plan after he left the Dail bar to return to his office, the outcome of his earlier talks with the Greens, obviously, still unclear, still confused.

We do not know, or can not establish, to where Brian Cowen went after he decided to press ahead with the plan which would subsequently lead to his utter humiliation.

But we know this, bizarrely: he called his friend, Barry Andrews -- the two bonded in Renards, back in the day -- at 12.30am on Thursday, when most people are at home in bed, and offered him a position in the Cabinet. Andrews, wisely, turned down the offer; but not even that was enough to steady the Taoiseach's course: onwards he pressed, in the face of at least some of his colleagues imploring that he walk the line.

Manifestly, it raises the question I have already posed, and it may answer it too: can the judgement of Brian Cowen be trusted anymore?

Through the prism of hindsight, all this raises a question, which is, alarmingly: were we ever, in fact, entitled to trust the judgement of the man who has made all of those decisions, weighty in nature, the bookend ones of a failed regime, and the other ones, too, the bread-and-butter ones, the upshot of which became evident for all to see in their pay packets last week?

In time, we may come to answer that question in the affirmative, but only in time. History can be kinder to a man long after he is gone. Brian Cowen yesterday took the first decisive step of his leavetaking. But the people are not ready to forgive him yet. Nor are they, I imagine, inclined to look any more favourably upon Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent