Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hoarse Sense - The Taoiseach Has a Duty to Engage with the Nation

The controversy over Brian Cowen’s interview on Morning Ireland yesterday is about judgement, not drink. The nation is sufficiently steeped in booze to know the difference between a hangover and a headcold.

Drink isn’t the issue. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, the nation was at its ease on Saturday nights knowing that our Teflon Taoiseach was swallowing well earned pints of Bass in Fagan’s of Drumcondra as quickly as the barmen could pull them.

Fifty years before, Pat Lindsay famously realised that the first inter-party Government was out of touch with the people when he discovered that James Dillon had never been in a pub other than his own and John A Costello had only been in a pub once, and hated it. This distance from pub culture put that first inter-party government seriously at odds with the nation. Paddy likes a pint.

Nobody in Ireland is going to hang Brian Cowen because he likes a pint, a smoke and a song. But what is going to cost him his position and, potentially, his legacy is what is either his inability or his refusal to engage properly with the nation who will sit in judgement on him very shortly indeed. Yesterday’s interview on Morning Ireland was another example of a golden chance to address the people that was not only wasted, but a self-inflicted wound.

Brian Cowen seems to hold the media in contempt on the odd occasion he thinks about them at all. He may very well be correct in his assessment. The problem is that Brian Cowen is not currently in a position where he can decide whether or not he likes the media. He stuck with them. He can’t do without them.

As Taoiseach, Brian Cowen has a duty to engage with the nation he leads and it’s only through the media that he can do that. For the leader of any democratic Government to despise the media to extent of only ever dealing with it at arm’s length is like a farmer despising cows. He can’t do it and be a farmer anymore.

Brian Cowen does very few media appearances and when he does do them he insists of speaking in nonsense jargon – the modalities of the situation moving forward in their totality, and so on and on and on. And this isn’t good enough.

The country is mired in recession, and people don’t know what’s going on. They’re frightened and confused by what they’re reading and the more they read, the more frightened and confused they get.

This is a quote from an Irish Times story last week about Irish bond yields: "The spread between the benchmark 10-year bond and the German bund was 372 basis points this afternoon, while the yield earlier rose sharply, by over 30 points, to a new euro lifetime high of 6.011 per cent at one stage, before falling back to 5.98 per cent at 5pm."

What does spread mean? What is a ten year bond? Why is it benchmarked? How many other bonds are there? What is a bond in the first place? What is a German bund? Is “bund” the German for “bond”? If it is, why doesn’t it have a capital letter like all German nouns? What are basis points? What is a yield?

Ten questions from one sentence. A question mark for every five words. And that is what people have been bombarded with for three years, incessantly, with no hope of respite. Who could possibly keep up?

People want to be told what’s going on in language they can understand. The nation can deal with being in a heap, if we are in a heap – eight hundred years of foreign oppression builds up a certain resistance. But there is an absolute duty on the man in charge to tell the people what’s going on. Brian Cowen is the man in charge.

Brian Cowen needs to treat with the media. He needs to tell the people he leads what’s going on in language they can understand. The best thing Brian Cowen could do this week is to return to the Late Late Show this morning and say the following:

"1. The country is in big trouble, and we’re all going to be cutting back big style for quite some time.
2. Fianna Fáil are to blame for the mess. We were in charge, we should have cooled things down and led the nation, rather than following an international herd.
3. Having broken the country Fianna Fáil are now fixing it. Ireland is still better off than it was in the past, and our position in the EU, the fact we speak English and our attractiveness towards foreign investment means that we can recover relatively quickly if we take our medicine now.
4. I don’t play golf, chess or bridge, go to the opera or put ships in bottles. I like to relax with a drink and a smoke and I don’t think I’m the only one. Not only that, but once this interview is open, I plan to go home to get to the Brewery Tap in Tullamore for a few scoops before closing. If that’s a problem you may express disapproval at the ballot box in the next election. I gotta do something to keep myself sane.
5. On the way to Tullamore I will stop off in the Park to ask the President to dissolve the 30th Dáil and call a general election for four weeks’ time. It’ll be a long campaign to give the nation time to decide as a nation if we want to be fiscally responsible, or if we want to do whatever it is the other crowd want to do, as they don’t seem to have a plan."

That’s what I’d advise Cowen to say. He’s the leader of the country. He has to show leadership. Ordinary people are very scared for their future and need to be reassured in language they can understand, rather than have jargon mumbled at them by a man who’s acting like he’s at the dentist. Their Taoiseach owes them that.

The Morning Ireland interview yesterday was an opportunity to do just that. Instead, he’s made it worse, and given ordinary people more to worry about. We didn't need that. We have enough to worry about as it is.