Hungover or not the interview was bad on so many levels

THE question of whether or not Taoiseach Brian Cowen was hungover during his interview with Morning Ireland was not as serious as his failure to grasp the significance and seriousness of such outings.

There were many aspects of his performance that failed to come up to the mark and, however his handlers attempt to spin it, there are some issues which are impossible to avoid.

An ignorance of the purpose of the interview: As Taoiseach, Mr Cowen was charged with explaining why the Government needed to take another €3 billion out of the economy next year. That was the dominant item on the news agenda. That was the subject of the interview.

This figure will amount to the same as all the non-infrastructure cuts announced in the last budget, including slashing child benefit, the education budget, the carers’ allowance and cutting the health spend.

At that time of the morning, Mr Cowen’s audience included former workers who had lost their jobs and parents on the school run.

He had 11 weeks to sell his Government’s message to avoid upheaval on Budget Day.

He kicked off the Dáil term with a offhanded grumpy performance that angered the very people he wanted to understand him.

He seemed offhand on whether the target would be €3bn or €3.5bn; that €500m will mean a lot to contract workers in the public service who do not know if they will have a job next year.

The scene: After a long summer holiday this was a gathering of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, slightly depleted because of the loss of two senators who inflated their expenses and were found out.

The TDs and senators met in the four-star Ardilaun Hotel in a calm and well protected setting. And the socialising the party put on for them kept the Taoiseach up until the early hours of the morning.

Whether drink was had or if it was just sparkling water, the imagery was akin to Roman senators basking while slaves suffered.

His tone: Brian Cowen was husky. He was gruff. He trailed the letter “s” and his winding sentences were littered with “ahems” and “ahs”. Whatever the excuses offered by his colleagues — nasal congestion, a sore throat or RTÉ moving the venue — he sounded like he was slurring.

People across the country felt he sounded hungover, and contacted radio shows to deliver this message.

He was abrupt with the presenter and snappy at the simple request to find out if €3bn or €4bn would be taken out of the economy.

This was not necessarily a break from normal service for the surly Taoiseach, but it was a rare occasion when the public went back to listen to how bad he was.

The mistakes: The Good Friday Agreement may have been the Fianna Fáil Government’s finest hour but it will not solve the public debt crisis.

The Croke Park agreement, with the trade unions, was supposed to deliver those savings. Mixing up the two, and chuckling afterwards, was a silly error.

Mr Cowen followed this up, almost immediately, by confusing the status of the corporate donations legislation — which appears to be the price tag the Green Party have attached to their continued role in the coalition.

Neither gaffe will bring down the Government. But together they showcased a man who was clearly not on top of his game.

The international impression of Ireland: The Government, and particularly Mr Cowen, has put great emphasis on selling good news about Ireland. The Government Press Office is keen to point to positive articles in the international press. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Mr Cowen have been championing Ireland to global news agencies.

Given Ireland’s much parodied relationship with alcohol, it was no surprise the suggestion the Taoiseach was hungover raced along the international news wires. One week ago the Government was trying to soothe fears that it could no longer manage it economic affairs. Yet the next time the country hit the headlines, international investors were confronted with the suggestion the country’s leader was [just about] asleep at the wheel.


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