Monday, January 17, 2011

Brian Cowen - There Let the Way Appear

Brian Cowen, that unlucky man, should change his party piece from Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore to Nearer, My God, to Thee. The tune that serenaded the sinking of the unsinkable ship seems a little more appropriate for the leader of the Legion of the Rearguard at this extraordinary moment in Irish public life.

When the Titanic sank, ninety-nine years ago this coming April, the band played on like it was just another night for the luxury liner. Yesterday evening, Brian Cowen addressed the media and the nation like a man that is utterly unaware of the iceberg that’s looming over him and his party.

The four days gone by have been Brian Cowen’s Premiership in microcosm. The nation wonders what’s going on and why it’s been kept in the dark. By the time Brian Cowen did turn up to state his case, the audience had long given up on him.

Yesterday evening, it took Brian Cowen fifteen minutes to say what he was there to say, that he would hold a motion of confidence in his own leadership on Tuesday, something he could have said in ninety seconds. But after fifteen minutes, such viewers as had tuned in had moved on, to graze the long acres of Sky or MTV.

The arguments that Brian Cowen is making now – refuting the notion that Fianna Fáil put party above country, explaining the strategy behind the bank bailouts and the rest of it – are arguments that he should have made two years ago. But they weren’t made two years ago, and that fight is lost. The horse is bolted, the milk is spilled, the field is lost. The debate has moved on.

What Brian Cowen does not seem to realise is that the goalposts have moved. A civilised debate on policy isn’t going to happen in the coming election. The people are in the mood for blood and Cowen doesn’t seem to know it. The hammers that built the construction boom are now building gallows in every constituency with the letters FF carved into the crossbeam as the people wait for revenge.

Brian Cowen may think he’s be Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies in the coming general election, coming out to kick some ass in his best Biffo mode, but he’s wrong. Whoever the leader of Fianna Fáil will be, he’ll be more like James Franco in 127 Hours, having to hack off a limb for the rest of the body to survive.

Brian Cowen has been treated shabbily in public debate in the past ten years. Abuse has been heaped upon him that he doesn’t deserve, abuse that stepped well beyond the bounds of robust political debate. Commentators have lined up to take free shots that were never answered.

But Cowen’s tragedy is that he has never taken the criticism seriously. He seems to see the criticism as beneath contempt and not worthy of the nation. It’s hard to believe a politician – a Fianna Fáil politician – could be so very naïve. Some intellectual from Trinity in the Labour party representing Dún Laoghaire might think that nobody listens to the baying of the mob. But an FF man? Incroyable.

Communication is the lifeblood of politics. Brian Cowen should have been on the television and radio constantly from when the crisis started in 2008 to reassure the people. His press staff should have had spokespeople in ever media to explain what was going on, and to put out fires before they raged out of control. But it didn’t happen.

There was an early disinclination to address the nation because of the legacy of the Charlie Haughey “living beyond our means” speech but that went right out the window with the bank bailout and the country suddenly found itself on a very steep learning curve to understand high finance and international banking.

The people never had a chance. What do any of us know about bond markets, really? This is just down to a matter of trust now, and for Brian Cowen all trust is lost. The battle is over. The people want to ease the pain, if only for a moment. They want revenge.

History will sit in judgement on Brian Cowen, and I hope it’s kind to a good man who’s talents were overwhelmed by circumstances. If he survives the vote on Tuesday, he’s mortally wounded anyway, and is just staggering through the bushes now on instinct. Only history can ease his pain.

As for his party, if Fianna Fáil elect a new leader before the election, he or she may be the shortest lived leader in the party’s history, as the parliamentary party that assembles after the election will be vastly different from the party that may depose Cowen and elect a new leader this week. If there is a party left to assemble in the first place.