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The incompetent life of Brian

IF HINDSIGHT were foresight we'd be living in the greatest little country on Earth, which according to a certain Bertie Ahern we were, until not so long ago, when those blasted Lehman Brothers spoiled the party by getting caught lying with their silk pants around their ankles.

We'd all be swanning around in 48-carat gold cars, whacking back bottles of Cristal champagne from cut-glass goblets and flossing the caviar from between our teeth with strands of hair of virgins raised under soft lights in temperature-controlled luxury sheds lined with velvet wallpaper.

But we're not and we aren't. What we are is drowning in bulls**t and debt. Floating around us like lumps of dirt in a swirling drain are nuggets of hindsight.

There was a veritable treasure trove of hindsight-nuggets in writer-narrator Pat Leahy's great documentary Crisis: Inside the Cowen Government. Most of them had been mined by Fianna Fail backbenchers and former FF-Green Party coalition ministers who went down with a sinking ship and are now gaspingly trying to paddle as far away as possible from the sunken wreck.

The first of two parts (the second is next Monday) focused on Brian Cowen's fumbling inability to communicate coherently, his refusal to listen to sensible advice, his blind loyalty and tendency to govern the country from within an exclusive circle of Dail-bar familiars, and, of course, the decision to implement the catastrophic bank guarantee scheme, about which his own cabinet members were informed in a series of tardy calls in the small hours.

What emerged was a shocking picture of arrogance, ignorance and incompetence, especially in the (mis)handling of economic affairs, about which Cowen and his finance minister, the late Brian Lenihan, knew nothing.

"He [Cowen] had absolutely no clue," said Shane Ross. "Cowen and Lenihan were patently out of their depth." When challenged, Cowen became truculent and fell back on empty catchphrases such as "the fundamentals of the economy are strong".

This was a highly polished, cleverly put-together documentary but also a piece of political comedy of the blackest kind, as one aggrieved FF talking head after another -- apparently forgetting the fact that they sat in government with their arms folded and their mouths shut while first Ahern and later the two Brians pulped the country -- lined up to diss their old boss. The effect was to make themselves look even more politically cowardly and self-serving than ever before.

"Brian never changed," said FF-er turned independent Mattie McGrath. "He had a loyalty to tribalism." It was tribalism that resulted in the appointment of Mary Coughlan, a politician almost as grumpy and inept at communication as Cowen.

"Brian just didn't do optics," remarked Cowen's holier-than-thou successor, Micheal Martin, about his predecessor's famously shoddy and uncommunicative persona when dealing with the media.

"We were never presented with choices," griped Mary Hanafin, over the way the bank guarantee was bullied through. "That decision should not have been taken at 1.40 in the morning, on the phone."

"I wasn't in a position to argue," muttered Willie O'Dea from behind his moustache. "It got to the stage where I didn't have anyone to argue with." I bet that's an admission you never thought you'd hear!

"It became blindingly obvious there were serious difficulties," offered Pat Carey, with blindly obvious understatement.

The bungled attempt to remove the automatic right to an old age pension for everyone, irrespective of wealth (which actually made a certain degree of sense), was "politically crazy", said PJ Mara, the master spin doctor of the Haughey era. Ditto the decision to nationalise Anglo-Irish Bank without knowing the extent of its debts.

All fine words and true, yet one question still needs an answer, and hopefully next week's concluding instalment will provide one: why, if Cowen was a walking disaster who couldn't run a tap let alone a country, didn't any of these people speak out or resign, instead of passing the long knife around behind their leader's back?

Reflecting on the damage that's been done, Willie O'Dea thinks, "in retrospect", a fresh government might have been a good thing. A wee bit too little a wee bit too late, wee Willie.