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Shane Ross: Cowen caught in crony curse


THUMBS RUSH: Cowen, an amiable, big-hearted man, failed to break the tribal mould of Irish politics. Photo: Steve Humphreys

THUMBS RUSH: Cowen, an amiable, big-hearted man, failed to break the tribal mould of Irish politics. Photo: Steve Humphreys

THUMBS RUSH: Cowen, an amiable, big-hearted man, failed to break the tribal mould of Irish politics. Photo: Steve Humphreys

BRIAN Cowen is a thoroughly decent man. He is good fun, loyal, honest and able. He does not deserve the personal humiliation inflicted on him in the past week. Yet he is a politician paralysed in the ethos of a bygone age.

Cowen's political character is a complete contrast to Charlie McCreevy, his predecessor at the Department of Finance. McCreevy always insisted that he would never be Taoiseach because he could not bear to be leader of Fianna Fail. He was no tribal chieftain. He did not have the DNA or the patience necessary for those long nights with the faithful.

Brian Cowen should never have been Taoiseach, but he is a more natural leader of a small tribal Fianna Fail party. He loves his pint and there is nothing he enjoys more than the company of his cronies.

In some ways, his loyalty is endearing. After his patron, Albert Reynolds, was dead meat, a younger Cowen went on TV to defend the tribal chief who had given him his first break. It was an impulsive political reaction, but laudable in human terms. Cowen was not prepared to trample all over his patron's corpse.

So it is no surprise that Cowen should wind up having dinner with three Fianna Fail fellow travellers at Druids Glen in July 2008. They were plucked straight from his comfort zone and all three had received crumbs from the Fianna Fail quango table.

Leaving aside Alan Gray, the consultant on the Central Bank board caught in the crossfire last week, and leaving aside also Cowen's garda driver, of course, it is truly astonishing that Cowen's three other chosen chums happened to be past or current directors of Anglo. That is, unless they wanted to talk about the rogue bank.

Back in July 2008, Anglo was the hottest topic in town. The golf game came only four months after the entire world had been put on notice that Anglo was in deep doo doo. On March 17, a concerted attack on Anglo's shares had signalled that world markets regarded Ireland's go-go bank as a dying duck. In the 2008 Saint Patrick's Day massacre of Anglo's shares, the price had plunged 23 per cent.

A few months earlier, a UK broker had derisorily dubbed Anglo "a building society on crack". In Leinster House, rumours were rampant.

Fintan Drury, the man who arranged the golf and the dinner, was Cowen's crony. In the Dail last week Cowen described him as a "friend". Which no doubt he was. Drury is a successful businessman, a PR spinner and director of bookmaker Paddy Power; but Drury is also a favourite of Fianna Fail. He was appointed as chairman of the RTE Authority in 2005 by Minister Noel Dempsey.

Gary McGann, an invited guest at the feast, is chief executive of Smurfit Kappa, one of Ireland's best brand names. A former president of Ibec, the fawning big employers' social partnership pillar so beloved of Cowen, he too had been the beneficiary of Fianna Fail's quango largesse. A boss at semi-state Aer Lingus in earlier years, Gary was appointed to the chair of the Aer Rianta (DAA) troublespot in 2003.

Sean FitzPatrick, the chairman of Ireland's troubled bank, was the star turn at the dinner. Sean had been made a director of Aer Lingus in 2004 by Fianna Fail Transport minister Seamus Brennan.

Offstage in the private sector, Seanie regularly met Gary at Smurfit board meetings. The Anglo boss was chairman and Gary was chief executive.

All day on the golf course and all evening at the dinner, nobody mentioned Anglo. The largest problem on the entire horizon loomed low on their priorities. A carefully arranged meeting between this powerful -- but highly stressed -- Anglo troika, and the Taoiseach yielded nothing. They had the undivided attention of the leader of the nation. Nobody mentioned the war.

Perhaps nothing inappropriate was said, but surely it was the Anglo directors' duty to make representations to Cowen on behalf of their shareholders in the bank's time of crisis? And surely it was the Taoiseach's job to demand answers from the bankers about its solvency? Did Cowen really seek no reassurances from his protegees?

Cronyism is the curse of Brian Cowen. Despite last week's protestations, he is a party man first and a national figure second. His record of appointing Fianna Fail supporters to positions of national influence has few parallels.

It is a moot point whether he is doing them a favour or vice versa. Directors' fees at semi-state bodies are useful if not huge, but such appointments benefit both parties. They demonstrate Fianna Fail's clout in the governance of supposedly independent bodies. They give the holders of such offices access to the powerful, status in their communities and a few bob. Such mutual back-scratching is endemic.

Some of Cowen's more blatant appointments occurred when he was in his first ministry at the department of Transport. They included the CIE chair given to Dermot O'Leary, a blatantly identifiable Fianna Fail boss. Back in 1994, just as he left office, Cowen made 10 appointments to quangos. Among them he gave Fianna Fail fundraiser Jim Lacey the juicy job of chairman of the Irish Aviation Authority and promoted former Fianna Fail finance minister Gene Fitzgerald to the board of the Irish National Petroleum Corporation. Today, in the dying days of his administration, he is again stuffing the quangos with Fianna Fail loyalists. Hardly a noble legacy.

Fianna Fail will leave office with its friends in situ at many of the most important semi-states. Hugh Cooney, current chairman of state agency Enterprise Ireland and advisory board member of the NTMA, gave money to Cowen's political campaign while Seamus Sheerin, a businessman from the Taoiseach's constituency, made a political donation to Cowen in 2006, only to find himself on the board of the troubled CIE in 2008.

The whole semi-state sector is infested by Fianna Fail cronies. If the next government does not act, it will take a generation to cleanse Fianna Fail's infiltration of the semi-states.

In these circumstances, perhaps, as the diners at Druids Glen have maintained, the quartet really did discuss the plight of small business? But who was less suitable to summon from his plush Donnybrook home to discuss small business than Gary McGann the President of big business outfit Ibec! Would it never have occurred to Cowen's chum, Fintan Drury, to invite Mark Fielding, the head of Isme, the small business organisation?

Mark knows more about small business than the combined knowledge of all the plutocratic bank directors who gathered in Druids Glen on that fateful day in 2008; but Mark is not an insider.

The Taoiseach's own explanation to the Dail of what had happened was typical Cowen gobbledygook: "I was there chatting to see if there were ideas and to find out other people's views of things and to see if things could be done that might be helpful. As the deputy will know, those people would have some views on that. That was basically the sum of it."

The national interest demands that cronyism comes to an end. Cowen, an amiable man with a big heart, leaves the nation having spectacularly failed to break the tribal mould of Irish politics.

Sunday Indo Business