Belfast Telegraph

Brian Cowen - From political titan to punch-drunk liability

Most ex-premiers can expect some sort of send-off but the Taoiseach's legacy will be as the man who sunk the Republic and Fianna Fail, argues David McKittrick

When the prime minister of any country steps down from office he, or she, can generally expect some soft words, even from former opponents, to send them on their way to retirement.

Even warrior-politicians, such as Margaret Thatcher, can get a mildly fond farewell and some warm-hearted rhetoric as they sail off into the sunset.

Not so Brian Cowen who, even before being propelled from office, has already lost almost all authority and credibility. And, in the last week or two, he has gone on to show a huge loss of judgment, making decisions which even the Fianna Fail faithful regarded as crazy.

When his party chose him, unopposed, as its leader and Taoiseach in May 2008, they did so because of his ability and brains, but also because of his reputation as an aggressive political bruiser.

His time in office has certainly been a bruising one, but he has suffered far more bruises than he inflicted. And today he looks, in the devastating insult once hurled at Gordon Brown, not so much a tough guy as Mister Bean.

He has good points: He is clever and loyal and in private good company and funny. He is regarded as untouched by the virus of corruption which once affected his party. As foreign minister he proved himself capable in helping manage the peace process smoothly.

But that's about it. As years go by, a more balanced view of the man may emerge, but at this point it is hard to fathom what will emerge in the way of further points to his credit.

The size of the minus column, by contrast, is as formidable as the proportions of the Republic's debt. He was finance minister when Fianna Fail recklessly, and financially fatally, fuelled the enormous boom which led to the even more enormous bust.

As Taoiseach, his main task was thus to deal with an issue which he helped to create. He frequently sent out the message that the problems were substantial, but not overwhelming, at several points conveying that prospects were brightening.

That approach was exposed late last year when he finally admitted - reluctantly and after weeks of public denial - that the task was beyond his administration. The IMF and EU had to be called in for a humiliating rescue mission.

As so often, much of the damage was self-inflicted. The financial intervention was inevitably a blow to Irish pride and sovereignty, but Cowen, by mulishly insisting until the last moment that it was not on the cards, damaged his own credibility.

Such secretiveness is a personal characteristic, for at many points he withheld important information from his former coalition party, the Greens, and even from his own party colleagues.

One of the final pieces contributing to his downfall was the recent disclosure that he had golfed and socialised with Sean Fitzpatrick - the much-reviled boss of Dublin's most toxic bank.

That happened several years ago, but Cowen never mentioned it: his lack of openness gave the revelation much greater impact.

In the modern world, politicians accept that openness is a vital part of their trade, but Cowen could not accept this. He so often found himself at odds with the outside world, but seemed to believe this was the way it had to be.

His first love was Fianna Fail, his fierce and almost excessive devotion to the party meaning he put it before all else - certainly the Dail and even his country as a whole. During his time in power, he retained his reputation as a bruiser with gruff and growling performances in the Dail. But the Irish public tired of him and turned against him, opinion polls recording ever-lower support for his party.

He battled on, but never looked like getting on top of the economic difficulties.

He also never looked prime ministerial and could not acquire the dignity or style of a national politician.

On Monday, his picture made the front page of the Financial Times, but for all the wrong reasons. He was the man in charge of the Republic when its economy imploded and whose behaviour in the last few weeks caused his country to be described as a laughing-stock.

Perhaps historians will reach a more balanced view, but at this moment he seems destined to go down in their pages as one of the Republic's worst leaders.

The charges against him are that he did not rise to the occasion and did not bring the finances under control.

He did major damage to his country's reputation abroad, in the process further undermining its already wobbling financial status.

He damaged the political system, to the point where much of the public is now utterly exasperated with politics in general.

The irony is that he contributed not only to the devastation of his country, but also the devastation of what, in his narrowness of vision, he cared about most of all: his Fianna Fail party.

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