Thursday 18 July 2019

The funny, sociable, sing-a-long side of Brian the Bulldog

Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

His stature may be unprepossessing, but unlike Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen was always a man of destiny who stood out from the crowd. The first time the party faithful took notice of the young Brian Cowen was on a bus to Bolands Mill in Dublin, where Fianna Fail gathered to say farewell to Eamon de Valera as he stepped down as President in 1973.

On the journey from Offaly, the precocious 14-year-old Cowen, whose party piece is the Derry anthem The Town I Loved So Well, entertained passengers with his rousing singing voice.

It is a voice that can still be heard late at night in the bars of Offaly, where Cowen mixes easily and feels most at home.

Now, three-and-a-half decades after the musical coming of age, the man from Clara has been anointed to become de Valera's sixth successor as Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach.

While Bertie traded on his Dublin working-class image, Cowen has come from a different social milieu -- rural Middle Ireland -- reasonably well-to-do, decent and unsnobbish. And he has Fianna Fail blood gushing in his veins.

His grandfather, Christy, had been a cattle dealer and a Fianna Fail councillor in Clara. His father, Ber, publican and undertaker, was a TD -- and the boy, the middle of three sons, was sent to the monastic boarding school in Roscrea.

Albert Reynolds, his political mentor and a close friend of his father, marked him down as a boy to watch. Cowen went to Roscrea with one of Reynolds' sons. The Cistercian school is one of the country's great political breeding grounds. Former tanaiste Dick Spring, and Fianna Fail cabinet minister David Andrews both attended the school before Cowen.

Back home in Offaly the teenage Cowen, a much more fluent speaker than Ahern, used to stir up the crowds outside churches at election rallies for his father. And he showed signs of things to come when he won the All-Ireland schools' debating contest in 1976.

Later, when he was studying law at UCD, Cowen rose from the floor at a debate of the sometimes snooty Literary and Historical Society to mount a robust defence of the Easter rebels of 1916, as the bright young sparks of Dublin debated a motion that "The Rising was a flop''. He will be the first Taoiseach to have admitted smoking cannabis (It is hard to imagine de Valera taking a toke of a reefer).

Cowen's most formative moment came with the sudden collapse and death of his father at the age of 52. The 24-year-old lawyer was suddenly propelled into the Dail at a by-election, becoming the youngest TD in the house. Not long afterwards, Reynolds was predicting that Cowen had the talent to be a future Taoiseach. It was Reynolds who appointed him to his first cabinet post.

His famous warmer-up speeches at Fianna Fail ard fheiseanna hit their caustic high note in 1993 when he elicited grass-roots raptures by threatening their PD coalition partners: "If in doubt, leave them out."

He has cultivated the grassroots assiduously, chatting to backbench TDs in the Dail bar. At weekends he retreats to his constituency, and is well- known for his lengthy sessions in local bars.

"There is no pretence about him at all,'' said a boyhood friend. "He will still enjoy a good laugh and a bit of a yarn with people wherever he meets."

Another Tullamore resident said: "He can slum it with the best of them. He'll be at a race meeting in Kilbeggan or a football match in Clara with the ministerial car and he and a few mates will all pile back into town for a few drinks. Some people wouldn't believe it. They'd think he was putting it on. He hangs out with a few people who wouldn't be the brightest sparks. You'd hear people saying, 'Would ya look at the gombeens he has with him?'"

On the next day after one of these sessions he would be off hob-nobbing with prime ministers and finance ministers at an EU summit.

On his home patch there is no doubt that he has the common touch, and he is genuinely loved by many of his constituents.

Johnny Flanagan, a local hotelier and one of his friends in Tullamore, says: "Even though he is a minister, he still welcomes people into his home to talk about their problems. He would spend ages talking to farmers about things like grain prices. He has great curiosity.''

When anti-abortion activists from Youth Defence protested outside his home showing pictures of aborted foetuses when he was Minister for Health, he apologised to his neighbours for the distress this might have caused them.

He may find the intrusions into his family difficult when, as expected, he becomes Taoiseach.

His wife Mary and his two teenage daughters are seldom pushed into the limelight, and their privacy is known to be an issue with him.

Unlike Ahern, Cowen has yet to translate his legendary common touch in his locality into the sort of national appeal that wins elections. On the contrary, inside the political beltway and on the national airwaves, he often comes across as gruff, world-weary and impatient.

In his memoir of the Reynolds' administration, One Spin on the Merrygoround, Sean Duignan described him as "alternately bantering and belligerent''. As one seasoned political observer put it at the time, "Brian Cowen's tongue would raise welts on a rhino."

While Bertie was always the model of politeness during negotiations, Cowen's approach is different.

During Northern talks with Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness was prone to say: "We'll have to consult the [IRA] army council on this.'' And Cowen would blast back: "Yeah, well, there's a mirror in the toilet if you want to go in there and talk to them.''

As he has come closer to the top job, Cowen has learned to soften the uncouth street-fighting style that led Alan Dukes to describe him as "Fianna Fail's gurrier-in chief'' earlier in his career.

The modern Cowen is generally much more restrained in his manner. But when necessary the bulldog is unleashed.

He specialises in making Enda Kenny look foolish. At one point in the last election campaign he ridiculed Kenny's attempts to win over the country with hospital sob stories. Said Cowen: "Mr Kenny is trying to run the country on the basis of 'I saw one man saying this and another man saying that'." The charge had a ring of truth to it.

Any political team would love to have Cowen fighting on its side. But great front-bench talents, men who specialise in witty retorts, do not always thrive in the role of leader. Michael Noonan, Michael McDowell and Pat Rabbitte -- three great parliamentarians -- all floundered once they took control of their parties.

And Fianna Fail will be hoping, above all, that their leader-in-waiting does not nosedive in popularity in the same way as Tony Blair's successor, and longtime heir apparent, Gordon Brown.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section