Brian Cowen cabinet ‘terrified’ by public anger over austerity

Several ministers in the Brian Cowen government including Cork’s Billy Kelleher and Batt O’Keeffe were physically attacked by angry members of the public as the economic crash engulfed the country, a new book reveals.

The ministers recount the impact on their personal lives of the public outcry over cuts they imposed while in Government in the book, Hell At the Gates by Daniel McConnell and John Lee.

Former junior minister Billy Kelleher recalls an occasion in mid-2010 when he and fellow Cork minister Batt O’Keeffe encountered an angry man on a busy Molesworth St, yards from Leinster House.

“We had just met each other and we were walking back [to Leinster House] together,” says Mr Kelleher, “and a fella went and caught Batt by the tie. He was trying to swing him onto the road and that sort of thing. I started shouting at him.”

The attacker was “just a very angry individual and he was shouting and roaring”, he said.

Terrified that the attacker, who was now swinging Mr O’Keeffe round and round by the tie, would cast the minister under a car, Mr Kelleher alerted some gardaí who were standing sentry outside the Dáil.

For related reasons, socialising in Cork City was off limits for Mr Kelleher.

“We just wouldn’t have been going out, my wife [and I]. I just thought it was getting too tricky. Fellas would be causing hassle and you did not want to be in a restaurant or in a bar or put your family in a difficult position,” he said.

One day, as he left a funeral home near the quays in Cork, a man approached Mr Kelleher and shoved him to the ground.

Ministers say it became a constant fear that a passer-by would lash out. Willie O’Dea recalled the menace in the air and said he was constantly “abused in the street” towards the end of his period in office. 

An instantly recognisable figure, and a constant canvasser of the toughest neighbourhoods in his native Limerick, Mr O’Dea now feared walking the streets of the capital.

“I stay in a hotel in Baggot Street there when I go up to Dublin, and it’s only a 10-minute walk to the Dáil. 

"It came to the point where I couldn’t walk in any more in the morning; if I had done that 10-minute walk I’d have run the gauntlet of one person abusing me, if not two or three,” he said.

The ministerial car became a refuge from the baying public — Mr O’Dea had to be driven the quarter mile to the Dáil from his hotel.

Mr O’Dea said the dislike for the government became so universal that on one occasion a foreign visitor had to intervene after a security guard in a bookshop left him to his fate.

“It was overtly hostile, I’ve never gone through a situation like it in politics and I don’t think any other minister ever in any government has,” says Mr O’Dea.

Conor Lenihan said the change in mood in Dublin was shocking.

“There was lots and lots of hostility during this period,” said Mr Lenihan.

“I used to occasionally go out socially and to be honest I had some very good friends who would flank me when I was out.

“I did not need a formal security detail as I had very good friends who basically acted as a security detail because you would have these angry people coming over shouting and screaming,” he said.

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