Opinion

Sunday 16 December 2018

Booze and politics were once intertwined - but we've sobered up

Brian Cowen celebrates with champagne after winning his seat in the Offaly/Laois election count in May 2007 Photo: James Flynn/APX
Brian Cowen celebrates with champagne after winning his seat in the Offaly/Laois election count in May 2007 Photo: James Flynn/APX

Gerard O'Regan

It's a tale almost as old as politics itself - those practitioners of the dark art who along the way have enjoyed a tipple or two. Two books hot off the presses chronicle some liquid moments from the life and times of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and ex-British cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke.

The Cowen book is a reminder that just as a more politically correct vibe was entering Irish public life, the former Taoiseach decided to give two fingers to those who suggested he should have been more careful of his public image.

He still insists he was entitled to, as they say, have the craic at the end of a long day in the political jungle. This sometimes meant sitting around with some friends from Fianna Fáil and "having a few pints''.

In fairness, he never went out of his way to be over-secretive about such gatherings, and a certain lack of hypocrisy remains one of the defining tenets of Cowen's political career.

But his insistence on socialising, sometimes in the public glare, meant that newspaper offices soon had plenty of pictures of the then-Taoiseach imbibing a pint of Guinness, or more famously quaffing from a bottle of Champagne.

It helped create a certain image of a politician - who may indeed have worked hard, but whose idea of a good night out was drinking with some mates.

'Hell at the Gates', co-authored by John Lee and Daniel McConnell, inevitably resurrects the infamous 'Garglegate' episode, when it was suggested that Cowen was hungover while being interviewed on 'Morning Ireland'.

He tells the authors he was in no such condition and blames a tweet by Fine Gael's Simon Coveney for creating this particular urban myth.

Overall, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy at this remove for the former Laois Offaly TD, and for a political career which was brutally cut off mid-stream, owing to a confluence of unforeseen and almost unimaginable events.

A vicious recession, banks on the point of collapse, the arrival of the so-called Troika in Dublin, and the imposition of draconian bailout terms for the Irish economy by Brussels bureaucrats, saw Mr Cowen depart the political centre stage. It can be of small consolation to him that he was not alone among European leaders who fell by the wayside in the face of such a tsunami.

In the meanwhile, Fianna Fáil is a party no longer comfortable with late-night drinking sessions which might make it into the newspapers. In public at least, there is an aura of near sobriety in the air. Current leader Micheál Martin carefully cultivated the image of a health-conscious politician when as Minister for Health he was more often than not seen munching an apple in public.

Meanwhile, Ken Clarke, in his newly published autobiography 'Kind of Blue' is clearly from the Cowen school of old-style politics.

He equally cares not a whit that he has been regularly portrayed and presented, over the years, with a glass of something or other in hand.

There are countless images of him knocking back pints of lager, drinking wine and smoking cigars. During his years as a Downing Street cabinet minister, he also had a liking for late-night jazz clubs.

Now aged 75, he makes no apology for his indulgence of a certain lifestyle and, in the words of one observer, "he has the girth to prove it''.

Grounded in the more reasonable middle ground of the Conservative Party, he is a lifelong Europhile, and he makes no secret of his disdain for Brexit and all it stands for. A few months ago, unaware his comments were being picked up by a nearby microphone, he was overheard dissing British Prime Minister Theresa May as "a bloody difficult woman''.

In his time, he also had a few stirring set-tos with Margaret Thatcher under whom he served in a number of ministries, and while he is still an admirer of some of her achievements, he was among those who at the end of her reign told her up front it was time to go.

Thatcher, despite her strict Methodist upbringing, is another politician who imbibed on occasion, and was not above having a few stiff whiskeys when shooting the breeze of an evening with some of her inner circle.

Overall, politics and alcohol have long been intertwined, and the precincts and surrounds of Westminster are dotted with famous watering holes which have been an epicentre for all sorts of intrigue, gossip, and drink-fuelled excess. Nearer to home, the Dáil bar has also spawned various liquid-fuelled dramas over the years,

But political life in Ireland and Britain these days is of a more sober hue. The growth of a gym culture, and more general health awareness, has put a damper on public displays of alcohol consumption.

Meanwhile, the old demon drink has also inevitably claimed its victims along the way. In Kenneth Clarke's family was a liking for the devil's brew - as so often happens, it may have floated through the generations - and his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver.

But the emotion-charged experiences of political life have long found a linkage with the delusions of booze.

There have been countless instances through the decades when both have intertwined.

One such occasion recorded for posterity was an exclamation from British cabinet minister Reginald Maudling on the aeroplane bringing him back to London, following his first visit to Northern Ireland.

"For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country,'' he said.

Irish Independent

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