Bright hope already diminished

Brian Cowen has intelligence, humour and rhetorical prowess, as no previous Taoiseach possessed. But there is an edge to him, which may obscure a likeability


Already the persona of Brian Cowen has been blurred a bit, largely by himself. There was a freshness to him when he became leader of Fianna Fail and then Taoiseach. The fluency in Irish was unusual and attractive. The off-the-cuff rhetorical style was impressive too. There was substance to what he spoke about, the commitment to community, the questioning of individualism, albeit an individualism a government, of which he has been part for 11 years, has fostered.
The delighted presence of his wife and daughters at the Áras and later; the memory of his father; the joy of his return as Taoiseach to Tullamore and Clara; the gulp of the pint of stout; the exuberant singing; the excited celebration.

But then the edgier bits. The harsh tone of the dismissal of conscientious objection to the Lisbon Treaty, the assumption of almost personal ownership of Fianna Fail and then the Dáil rage. That finger-wagging threat: “I can organise it so that every time his man [Enda Kenny] completes a sentence. I can have people roaring and shouting on this side if he wants.” Not just the menace but the assumption that Fianna Fail backbenchers could be corralled by his bidding to shout down the leader of the Opposition. That edginess may prove a political liability and Bertie Ahern was cognisant of that factor in the lead up to the last election.

There also are indications that he suffers from the Michael McDowell delusion: that winning arguments equals winning hearts and minds; an inability to avoid arguments and an inability to avoid not winning arguments.

Intelligent, yes; capable, yes; emotionally intelligent, probably not.

Robert Putnam and Bertie There is a mind at work there however, perhaps not often tasked with the great issues of politics – notably how wealth, power, welfare and opportunity should be distributed – for Irish politics does not demand such reflection. But that mind at work must reflect at times on these issues and there are signs it has and obvious signs he has thought about community or what Bertie Ahern and his mentor, Robert Putman (author of Bowling Alone) call “social capital”.

In a much quoted speech he made last November, at the Indecon Public Lecture, he spoke of his priorities: productivity, equity and the environment. It was productivity that was the real priority. “Productivity increases are the foundation for increased living standards and for the continued growth in the economy.” And then: maintaining a tax system “conducive to enterprise and investment”. He spoke of a republic: “A Republic is a country where citizens come together to agree the rules under which the Government are mandated to advance all individual interests equally,” and an acknowledgement that market forces don't work for everybody and the economic success did not “lift all boats by the same amount, nor done so equally between individuals, different socio-economic groups or between regions”. But immediately after such acknowledgement a limp commitment to the “maintenance” of public expenditure in health and education.

In his first speech as leader of the Fianna Fail faithful he spoke of strenuous efforts to promote the Irish language, “a revival of patriotism” (quoting Sean Lemass) and “working together we will continue to build the Republic and to realise the ambition, the hope and promise of the Easter Proclamation”. But there is a sense of this being largely rhetorical.

Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times has drawn attention to his favourable reference to Des Geraghty's “excellent” book, Forty Shades of Green. Fintan O'Toole suggested that the implication is that Cowen realises that social stability in Ireland can no longer draw on a simple sense of ethnic solidarity and has to find new social and civic foundations, that instead of growth for its own sake, we should be pursuing “a more people-friendly and eco-friendly form of economic development”.

But his commitment to social justice seemed lax, in the four budgets he presented as Minister for Finance, only one was CORI extolled.

Garret FitzGerald, another admirer, has written of how Brian Cowen, as Minister for Foreign Affairs,  insisted that Ireland's representative on the Security Council of the United Nations, Richard Ryan, make clear that military action on Iraq would require a further resolution beyond the one passed in November 2002, threatening Saddam Hussein with “consequences”. But while he regretted that the US and Britain resorted to military action without such authorisation, he saw no difficulty in facilitating such military authorisation by keeping Shannon open to US military flights. In doing so he distorted the record of Ireland's previous position on according military by facilitating the US and while he himself would have no reason to remember the history of this, it would be surprising if officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs did not bring it to his attention.

As recently as 1989 the late Brian Lenihan, then Minister for Foreign Affairs stated “the long standing” criteria that applied, to military overflights and landings must not be part even of training maneuvers by foreign military aircraft or en route to military exercises. He added that the aircraft must be “unarmed, not carry arms, ammunition or explosives and not engage in intelligence-gathering”. This was a word for word repetition almost of what was said on behalf of Peter Barry in 1983 when he was Garret FitzGerald's Minister for Foreign Affairs. Charlie Haughey changed this in 1991 in relation to the Gulf War and Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern carried the change through into the 2003 war, claiming this had been consistent policy for 50 years.

The Lisbon Treaty referendum will be his first electoral test. Already he has made extravagant claims about the Treaty and about the consequences of its rejection by the Irish people. If the Treaty is rejected, he can hardly claim there was no great issue at stake. But it may persuade him politics is not all or even mainly about winning arguments.