| 9.5°C Dublin

Gene Kerrigan: Country deserved better than Cowen

She'll come to this country from the University of Brisbane, almost 50 years from now. We'll call her Angela.

The grand-daughter of one of the 100,000 people who will emigrate from this country over the next two years. She'll be researching a thesis on the reign of the man that the history books will routinely refer to as Biffo the Clown, Ireland's silliest ever Taoiseach. She'll be curious about this man. The very mention of his name makes her grandfather mutter obscenities.

Who was this Brian Cowen who presided over the Great Recession that destroyed the lives of so many? What did he stand for that so angered his party? And what exactly happened in that extraordinary week -- when his TDs voted confidence in him on Tuesday and by Thursday went hysterical with hatred and contempt for him?

The first surprise Angela will get, as she examines the newspaper and audio and video archives, is how highly regarded Biffo was when he became Taoiseach in 2008. Eminent commentators spoke and wrote of his "intellect", and how he had "brains to burn". However, they were unable to identify a single political policy, or notion, or idea that drove him. His political ideology seemed to be summed up as "keep on keeping on".

Economic policies were set by the banks and the builders. A major part of the job of a Taoiseach or Minister for Finance, Angela gathered, was to have regular golf games and dinners with wealthy people. And then to pat the golden ones on the back and thank them for their ideas on how the politicians should run the country.

And this was okay by his political opponents and by the media, who similarly lionised the bankers and builders. Until the bubble burst.

But what happened in that extraordinary week in January 2011?

Again, Angela will search in vain for the conflicting political policies that led to the flare-up. Biffo's chief challenger, Micheal Martin, sat with him in Cabinet for 13 years and didn't oppose a single government policy. Pump the property bubble? Fine. Bail out the banks? Fine. Depress the economy with austerity cuts, aimed at the unemployed and at low and middle income earners? Fine. Go easy on the wealthy? Fine. Kowtow to the EU mandarins as they impose punitive interest rates on loans? Fine.

In fact, Martin and the rest of the "rebels" were okay with Biffo staying on as Taoiseach -- pursuing exactly the same policies. They just wanted him removed as Fianna Fail leader -- because he was so disliked by voters. They wanted a less annoying leader, who could make soothing noises and increase the vote.

Yet, on the Tuesday of that fateful week, Biffo triumphed. Did his political arguments win them over? No, Angela will search in vain for a single instance of political debate over that entire week. It was all about what was best for "the party". Biffo won because TDs believed that removing the leader at that stage would damage even further their chances of re-election.

"What a shower of gutless gobshites," Angela will murmur.

But why did these same people screech with hatred for Biffo by Thursday? Angela will get a clue when she watches the videos of what happened on Wednesday. She will be stunned to watch Biffo cracking jokes in the Dail chamber and blackguarding the opposition. Smiling, elated, his mouth hanging open as he looks around to confirm that everyone appreciates his wit.

And Angela will be puzzled to note that the Fine Gael leader and his supporters joined in the laughter. And the Labour leader. It was like a private club, she might think. They're relaxing, after the tension of the previous few days. It's their job to take turns scoring points, for the entertainment of the electorate. But there's nothing personal in that, and nothing political. They're just performing.

"Ah, I'll tell you one thing, lads," she'll see Biffo chortling. And the video shows a real sense of warmth between Biffo and his opponents. "You're worth it, you're worth it! It's worth coming in here for half an hour!"

And Angela will note the small piece in the following day's Irish Independent, which reported that Biffo "requested that a video of his performance be sent out to party supporters". So chuffed was he with his rejuvenated image -- tough and wisecracking -- that he wanted everyone to see a winner in action.

Wednesday's papers were full of Biffo's triumph. Between that and his comedy video, Angela was not surprised that Biffo felt emboldened to attempt a stroke. He had accepted Michael Martin's resignation from Cabinet. And now the five ministers who weren't standing for re-election resigned abruptly that evening -- some said it looked orchestrated. And Biffo instantly moved to appoint six fresh faces to cabinet.

The Biffster was kicking ass. Lack of communication skills? Hah! No one likes him? Come on -- the punters love a winner! Hey, Biffo told himself -- go for it!

And he did, and the Greens panicked. They told him they had "issues of perception that they were uncomfortable with". The poor dears, Angela will whisper to herself.

They claimed to have told Biffo the jobs-for-the-boys stroke would "go down like a lead balloon", it would "send the wrong signal". And Biffo interpreted this (as well he might) as being like the lads giving him advice. Like his mates might advise him against telling fart jokes at a job interview. No more than opinion. But triumphant Biffo knew people would see it as a sign of strength and character.

Revulsion, fear, panic -- he's staying, going, staying, going, gone. Good enough to run the country, not good enough to run the party.

Angela will examine the record of that week with growing puzzlement. This Brian Lenihan, claiming he was too busy to be disloyal to his leader -- then those TDs claiming he'd lobbied them to dump Biffo. Someone called Hanafin, who played coy games about how she voted in the leadership row, as though it mattered. And a funny chap named Conor Lenihan, a minister, who seemed to be on every TV and radio show and in all the papers, bad-mouthing Biffo. It was almost, Angela might think, as though Conor wanted to be fired, so he could convince the electorate he was a rebel who had nothing to do with this awful government.

What, Angela will ask herself, was it all about? Where were the politics? Where was the alternative course of action? Could it really be all about TDs wanting to hold on to their seats? Could they be so selfish in the midst of a national economic catastrophe?

Back in Australia, Angela will visit her grandfather. "You know something?" she'll say, "you did the right thing, leaving. You were well out of it."

And her grandfather will maybe nod, but he'll know it wasn't that simple. We were better than that, he'll think. We could have had a good country, not a plaything for gamblers. But we left it to Biffo and the rest, because they told us that was the road to prosperity, the road to freedom. We needed leadership, they gave us tax cuts. We needed politics, they gave us Conor Lenihan, his eyes ablaze as he engaged in a small, silly internal party skirmish between people who have no real grasp of the extent of the damage they have wrought.

Sunday Independent