THEY met near the Temple of Heaven, for Brian Cowen it was an encounter worth flying halfway across the globe for, for his Chinese host it was just another diplomatic speed date.
The dramatic Stalinist-style grandeur of the Great Hall of the People was the suitably imposing setting for Mr Cowen’s allotted 20-minute audience with the Red Emperor, Wen Jiabao, squeezed in between visiting premiers from Singapore and the Netherlands.
As the day unfolded it would showcase the two contrasting sides of Mr Cowen’s perplexing political character — the statesman and the grump, unfortunately for the Chinese leader he got the grump.
Biffo, or Gruffo as we should perhaps call him on such occasions, can throw out a magnificent line in apparent sullen indifference when he chooses. And such seemed the case as he ambled into the meeting with the man who is master of 23% of the world’s population — whether they want him as master or not.
Mr Cowen stumbled slightly on the richly ornate carpet as he took his seat across from the Chinese premier before the two exchanged the most unusual of pleasantries.
Premier Wen recalled that when he visited Ireland he was most impressed by “your highly developed development zone” before declaring for good measure the Irish were “highly intelligent people”.
Luckily, Mr Cowen did not take the bait and reply: “Hey, thanks, supreme leader, I bet you say that to all the nationalities! Let’s just forget about Tibet and human rights, you old charmer.”
Instead he returned the compliment on developments and, er, congratulated the Chinese athletics team.
The Taoiseach did not seem to want to rise to the challenge of the surroundings and delivered his lines in the flattest of tones, like he was going through the motions with a dreary constituent seeking one of those gold-plated medical cards for an inconveniently ill grandmother.
Maybe Mr Cowen’s bad humour at the hall was due to that fact he was still reeling from the post-budget Great Maul of the People he suffered at home. Anyway, the Chinese were keen to get down to business as the media were escorted out from under the enormous chandeliers, past the lavishly decorated walls and through the giant Ming dynasty vases. The Taoiseach later noted his hosts had not touched their tea, perhaps fearful this may, or may not, mean something in this highly orchestrated society.
As Mr Cowen’s blacked-out motorcade swept away through a Tiananmen square which was as emblazoned in brilliant autumnal sunshine as it had once been awash with blood, the Taoiseach’s demeanour lightened noticeably, which was just as well as he was about to encounter something he has rarely experienced since taking office in May — adulation.
There is a place on the far side of the world where Mr Cowen is lorded like Barack Obama, that place is the Chinese University for Foreign Affairs.
The hundreds of students excitedly waiting for their political superstar to appear had clearly decided they wanted a foreign affair — and it was going to be with our Taoiseach.
As his CV was read out the youngsters could hardly contain themselves: elected to the Irish parliament in 1984! (loud applause), became Minister for Transport! (wild cheering) was made prime minister at the age of 47 last year (the sound of communal ecstasy engulfs the room).
The Chinese girls just loved that political dreamboat from the West and were not afraid to show it.
One gushed and giggled as she demanded to know the inner Biffo: “What’s your motto in life, what are your dreams? You are young like us!”
Mr Cowen seemed more than a little taken aback at the scale of the Biffomania as they all seemed to want their own little piece of Brian, and wanted it now.
Then one young gun who clearly adored the Taoiseach, but loved him without blindness and was aware of his failings — particularly in the waffle department — rose and said: “In not more than 20 words can you give us a summary of the Irish experience and how you would bring about re-unification?”
Not the easiest trick to pull off in 20 words, but Mr Cowen seemed enlivened by the premise and began to speak with great eloquence regarding his hopes for a “unity of people rather than geography” and his passionate belief not a single more drop of blood should be spilled over the national question.
It was a jolting glimpse back to the old political and oratorical brilliance of Mr Cowen, a brilliance which appeared to have perished as soon as he became Taoiseach.
The university’s president summed up the thoughts of everyone present; “Mr Cowen, your wonderful answers have enlightened us! We are now closer emotionally and physically!”
Lap it up Biffo, it will probably be a long time before you hear something like that from Enda Kenny in the Dáil.
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