Bruce Arnold

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

Brian didn't knife Bertie but he needs to be a lot sharper

He saw the economy -- for which he was largely responsible -- implode; his ready-made answers about it concealed the gravity of what we faced.

It can hardly have come as a good start to another ghastly week in Brian Cowen's catastrophic leadership of the country, since he took over in the spring, to have been confronted on Monday morning by accusations about another job he did not do. In the 'Daily Mail' that morning on Page 1, was Brian Cowen's claim: 'I DIDN'T KNIFE BERTIE'.

The disclosure came from an excellent life of Brian Cowen by Jason O'Toole, 'Brian Cowen: The Path to Power'. It was published this week by Transworld, and serialised in the paper. Any other week in Cowen's political life would have been better for a launch with such a focus.

O'Toole's account, based on extensive interviews, is both favourable and truthful, not just about Bertie Ahern but about Cowen more generally. On Ahern, the story is incomplete.

Nobody 'knifed' Bertie, least of all Cowen, the then-Tanaiste and heir apparent. But before Cowen went to Malaysia for St Patrick's Day last March then for a brief holiday during Easter Week in Vietnam, members of Fianna Fail had approached him with valid questions about removing Ahern, whom they thought was an increasing embarrassment as a result of Mahon Tribunal revelations.
Ahern realised he was losing the support of his colleagues. O'Toole's book tells us that Cowen, in the Far East, received "a number of calls from party colleagues" and may have been informed of behind-the-scenes moves against Ahern.

He phoned Ahern on his return and saw him the following day, which may have been Good Friday.
O'Toole reports that meeting in Cowen's words: they "discussed things generally", including the Mahon Tribunal, Cowen leaving the issues as "matters for" Ahern. Though it is not covered in detail, it is inconceivable that Cowen would not have given Ahern full details, as far as he knew them, of the mood in the party in naming names. Not to name names but to imply a tide against the leader, would have been to knife him by innuendo.

Ahern was governed by Fianna Fail internal support, not by the media. If he wanted media endorsement, he got it that Good Friday evening on 'the Late Late Show'. In the last 'Late' item, Eamon Dunphy, Eoghan Harris and John Waters discussed whether Bertie could last for as long as he wanted to stay. Harris supported him; Dunphy was critical, thinking him not worthy of the job; and Waters predicted his downfall, but only "eventually".

I watched the show, having filed a piece for the next morning about Ahern with the concluding paragraph: "Politicians have witnessed a most terrible degree of damage to political life, to moral and ethical standards, to the idea that leaders set examples; and what they have done now borders on the pathetic. The lesson remains the same: Bertie Ahern must go." The following Wednesday, he announced his resignation, the final twist being his decision to delay the departure by several more weeks -- an indefensible indulgence that weakened Cowen's position in confronting the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

Two further insights from O'Toole's book are worth mentioning. The first includes the disturbingly trivial view Cowen has of the media.

"I'm sure that they'd like to see different faces. Different script. A new play, you know? They are the people who are sitting up there, theatre critics, looking in on the goings-on in Government; and when they see the same people at the head of things, you know, from a newspaper man or woman's point of view, I'm sure they are saying, 'Sure it would be great if we had someone else to kick around!'" Coming from a profession that is as slippery as engine oil with people who are as devious as rats, this is pretty rich judgment to be giving out.

The second insight came when Cowen launched Garret FitzGerald's book, 'Ireland In the World', during the Nice referendum, and had this to say about politics: "We really do need to engage in the affairs of the State in a way that is far more challenging and far more inspiring."

Brian Cowen has made it more challenging by being less inspiring. He lost Lisbon. He walked into it ill-prepared, under-funded and over-confident. He misunderstood the public mind and he brought no inspiration whatever to bear. He saw the economy -- for which he was largely responsible -- implode; his ready-made answers about it concealed the gravity of what we faced.

He made a poor decision to bring forward the Budget, rushing into it, clearly without thinking things through and with a capacity for ignoring key issues, like public sector wages and the savings his promised reforms needed. He still does not understand that all thresholds -- particularly those faced by the over-70s -- are unstable now and the elderly hate him. He is the first Fianna Fail leader to have turned against a key and growing class of supporters with a form of treachery they cannot accept. Parents of children, students and pensioners have parallel feelings of uncertainty and suspicion.
He appears to be contemplating new forms of deception on Lisbon. I am told of one public servant who recently said: "It is simply incredible that any democratic government would align itself with other governments against its own people. The refusal of the Government to accept the result of the referendum (there is an unwritten rule that referendum results last about 10 years, unless the turnout is very low) is a matter of the utmost gravity. The possibility of treason is a legitimate question to raise."
A legitimate answer on Lisbon is more brief: whatever he does, he will not win.

What his performance offers for the future is hard to define: no tough measures of reform; no slimming down of the public service; no tightening up of ethical legislation; no clear identification of himself with the Irish people as a whole, since he has divided them up; and lastly, no inspiration, since he has left himself with no room for it.

He never knifed Bertie; but he has knifed a lot of us.