Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Book Review: Brian Cowen: The Path to Power

Book Review: Brian Cowen: The Path to Power, by Jason O’Toole. Transworld, €12.99

Unintentionally, this life of Brian Cowen by Jason O'Toole, is a sad book. It begins with the hubris of confidence and assurance, as Cowen takes over the Dail seat of his father, Ber, and builds a career that seems always to have as its ultimate target him becoming Taoiseach, which indeed happens.

But it ends with the nemesis of two major political defeats -- the Lisbon Treaty and the appallingly badly judged Budget -- and sees the story's hero confronted with what appears to be the Goddess of retribution pointing towards a grim downfall.

This is made even worse by the fact that Cowen, a tough, gritty, intelligent political animal who, from all the evidence put forward by O'Toole, is straight and honest into the bargain, succeeded three leaders of Fianna Fail who were disgraced and pushed out of office.

O'Toole tells what we might have expected from Cowen. He was a backbencher for eight years under Charles Haughey, who admired him but gave him no breaks. Albert Reynolds believed this was, in part, because Cowen spoke his mind at party meetings, was not part of the Haughey 'clique' and was too bright.

From the start, Reynolds recognised Cowen's qualities, befriended and supported him. When he became Taoiseach, Reynolds brought Cowen into Cabinet with responsibility for Transport, Energy and Communications. It was a difficult time for him, and a difficult time for the administration, which broke up over the Harry Whelehan affair, letting in the Bruton-led coalition in which Labour shifted from their ill-conceived alliance with Fianna Fail back to their traditional and workable partnership with Fine Gael.

The partnerships -- including the earlier one between O'Malley and Reynolds -- made Cowen deeply distrustful of other parties, revealing an angry streak in his make-up that makes him an edgy character. He took on Health after Ahern's return to power in 1997 and favoured fundamental restructuring. If this is the genesis of the HSE, then Cowen has a lot to answer for. His final Health budget allocation was €3.2bn. That budget is now €15bn. As Taoiseach, health has become part of his nemesis. O'Toole claims that "he fully intends to rectify the structural problems", but the faint hope health might become "his crowning glory" was getting fainter as the book went on sale.

Cowen's career has been peppered with contention, argument, conflict. He rowed with the PDs, was furious at their interference with Fianna Fail's view that, as majority partner, they should have wielded the power. He rowed with Mandelson; who needs to row with him? Does he now face a new contention with the Greens?

He brought toughness to his next appointment in Foreign Affairs, where he presided over critical issues such as 9/11, and also ran the Nice Referendum twice, in quick succession, getting a resounding 'Yes' the second time round -- something that will prove more difficult if he attempts a Lisbon rerun.

Cowen was still in Foreign Affairs when Ahern, by promoting him to deputy leader, first anointed him as successor. In his final appointment, to the Department of Finance, there is, in the book, little evidence of a thoughtful and reformist politician looking at the clear signs of a coming recession, recognising how much of Ireland's short-lived wealth would soon vanish, and making provision.
He locked himself into the National Development Plan, stuck with the idea that the economy was performing well and declared himself proud of his achievements. It was textbook hubris.

O'Toole deals only with the blow dealt to Cowen by the defeat of Lisbon. The banks crisis and the Budget fiasco came after the book was finished. This makes the pain all the more acute, since we fill in the dismal closing scenes for ourselves. But the book is a good account of the short tempestuous political life of Brian Cowen so far. Wherever will it go next?