THERE was a time when people in Fianna Fáil regarded Brian Cowen as a brilliant public performer. From an early stage in his political career — having been made minister at a young age — he was used as a "warm-up" act for the party at árd-fheiseanna, rousing the delegates to a crescendo before the emergence of the leader for his annual address.
During the last general election campaign he took the fight to Fine Gael when his leader Bertie Ahern floundered, confidently delivering the party message whenever required. These performances are but a memory now.
Instead, Cowen cuts a hang-dog image, lugubrious in his appearance and delivery, unconvincing as a man who can lead the country out of the mess it is in. He rarely offers dynamism and, as a result, delivers little hope. He appears beaten. This may be wrong, but it is the image he projects, much as he might like to dismiss it as unfair media criticism.
There is no doubt that he is working hard behind the scenes but hard work does not guarantee correct decisions — and he now faces suggestions that he risks undermining his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, by considering trade union demands for extraordinary concessions on Lenihan’s planned reduction of public sector pay.
It is not an exaggeration to say Ireland may as well be fighting a war at present, albeit one without an army. We are fighting a war to protect our independence. The economic conditions facing the country are grim, but the inability to take action to counteract this, or to convince the public of the need for dramatic and painful measures, is increasing the likelihood that either the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission/European Central Bank is going to take effective control of this country’s finances.
At a time like this we need a leader who does it visibly from the front, rather than fumble behind closed doors.
Instead, Cowen blows it time after time. When he finally donned his wellington boots to visit flood scenes he was accused of seeking positive publicity from photo shoots. He brought this upon himself.
The initial failure to put on the boots was regarded as an indication of his unwillingness to muck in and as an illustration of his detachment. The real problem was his tardiness in getting to the flood areas — he arrived in Cork three days after his environment minister John Gormley — and his failure to promise immediately that whatever needed to be done would be done.
Instead, the cabinet promised a miserable €10 million on the Tuesday after the River Lee flood and failed to deploy the army to deal with a national emergency. Cowen’s comment that things were going to get worse before they would get better may have been taken out of context, but it mightn’t have mattered if it had been said as part of a defiant statement that substantive corrective measures would be taken to help people.
Cowen’s initial silence in the wake of the publication of the Murphy Commission report on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Dublin was another enormous mistake and it was notable that he was the only political leader who did not state the resignation of bishops would be desirable. Even Archbishop Diarmuid Martin gets that.
Cowen’s staunch defence of the Vatican was extraordinary. His assessment of the legal and diplomatic niceties — delivered in the Dáil on Tuesday — may have been accurate and put honestly, but it showed scant political nous.
Only last week Cowen went to the Irish Exporters Association where it was reported he called for more optimism and warned against talking the country further into recession.
"We should not let others talk us down, nor should we do it ourselves. We should not forget that our Irishness gives us a distinct selling point in the world today. He cited the Global Irish Network — the project that has emerged from the farce that was the Farmleigh meeting of multi-millionaires in September — "as the first step towards refocusing and refining our brand as we seek to further develop Ireland’s footprint in the world market".
Such woolly platitudes do not provide convincing leadership. Cowen has often cited the "smart economy framework" he launched last December as positioning the country for recovery, but most of us who attended Dublin Castle for its launch were distinctly unimpressed by what was presented and nothing that has happened since has given us any reason to change our minds. Yesterday’s launch of a green economic agenda promises to be as underwhelming.
At least Cowen appeared in public for that, but it is what he does and how he does it once there that’s most important. If he isn’t in front of the people he can’t provide leadership, but he has to work on his levels of performance, no matter how uncomfortable he may be with that.
His unexpected inability to communicate effectively started with his lacklustre approach to seeking Yes votes in last year’s Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign when he was unsure and unconvincing and far too late in making his pitch. It set the tone for his leadership to date, something he has been unable to overcome. Cowen gives the impression too readily of a man who is struggling to deal with the enormity of the task that has fallen upon him. We need a character in charge who appears invigorated by the challenge, even if terrified privately by it. Instead his body language during public appearances screams distress and his tone of delivery is mordant.
His time as a minister in the departments of finance and foreign affairs seems to have encouraged him to talk in clichéd fashion — "going forward" — and official speak — "we have to be cognisant of the parameters" — so much so that he has become an easy parody for Gift Grub.
YET I know from personal experience of interviewing him over the years that he can be fluent, relaxed and cogent in interviews when he makes the effort to relax (if that is not a contradiction). And his previous performances persuaded Fianna Fáil to make him its leader.
Cowen’s advisers feel he has not been given many breaks by the media over the past year and that a mutual hostility has developed because of that. This may have happened with some of the Leinster House lobby, but I don’t believe it is a universal problem. Cowen has disappointed many people and any objective analysis of his performance has to be that he has not done nearly as well as he could or should.
The media does not want to see him fail. I imagine any journalist, broadcaster or media employer would love to see Cowen provide leadership by making hard decisions and convincing people to follow him in that. If Cowen was more visible at the right times and more confident and assertive in his statements — rather than appealing to people to be positive — he would get more support.
But time has almost run out for him. Having won Lisbon and survived the potential departure of the Greens from government, he may find that a combination of biblical floods and errant clergy has damaged him too badly and that an apparently populist budget — instead of the realistic one required — could backfire badly upon him.
The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm. His book, Who Really Runs Ireland?, has been in the top five non-fiction bestsellers since its release in late September.