Forget all about Garglegate in Galway — it’s the economy, stupid

BRIAN Cowen’s interview on Tuesday’s Morning Ireland lasted little over nine minutes, but it had enormous reverberations, even though he essentially said nothing. He just fobbed off all the hard questions.

When asked about holding the necessary by-elections, for instance, he managed to avoid the issue completely by talking about the possible popular election of the lord mayor of Dublin. After listening to what he actually said, you were none the wiser about whether the lord mayor will be popularly elected.

The interview was a massive non-event. “God, what an uninspiring interview by the Taoiseach this morning,” Simon Coveney reportedly tweeted. “He sounded halfway between drunk and hung-over, and totally disinterested.”

Only kids and twits use Twitter, so it was surprising this tweet was turned into a political firestorm.

Deputy Coveney’s comments would have had little impact if the Taoiseach and his entourage fobbed them off like he had fobbed off Cathal MacCiolla’s questions during the interview. But instead Fianna Fáil went on the offensive.

The whole thing reminded me of the story that the late US President Lyndon Johnson used to tell his staff about a sheriff in Texas who was involved in a close re-election battle. The sheriff told aides to spread the word that his opponent was having sex with a pig.

“Ah,” one of the aides said, “nobody would believe that.

“I know,” the sheriff replied, “but we might get the son of a bitch to deny it.”

Brian Cowen denied he was drunk during the interview. He did not slur his words like someone who had too much to drink, but he did sound a bit subdued, possibly because he was tired. After all, it was an early morning interview and he had been up until well after 3 am.

He had reportedly been the life and soul of the party the previous night — singing, telling jokes, and mimicking Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Philip Walton and various other people. That can be an important part of a politician’s job at party gatherings and the Taoiseach was working late on Monday night.

That was the only explanation we needed, but instead some twits reading Twitter decided to go after Fine Gael for going over the top, but in the process they lost the plot. The Taoiseach crowned the whole thing with his aggressive denial that he was drunk. It was a public relations disaster. Once politicians deny anything, people all over the world are inclined to think they are guilty. Opposition allegations would not have made news outside the country, but what did make international news was the Taoiseach’s denial that he was drunk. It would never be considered international news when somebody — especially a member of the opposition — suggests that the ‘Big Paddy’ had too much to drink. Unfortunately, there is a stereotype in the rest of the world that the Paddies drink too much, so it became international news when the Taoiseach denied it openly. “I think it’s a real new low in Irish politics,” he “fumed”, according to Fox News.

He denied he was drunk. “It is not true at all,” Mr Cowen insisted.

Of course, it was not true, but it is so unusual to have a leader going on radio to deny he was drunk during an interview that this became news. The wire services — Reuters and Associated Press — carried the story.

“Cowen was repeatedly accused by politicians and commentators on Irish radio on Tuesday of being drunk or hung-over after he gave a croaky interview to state radio,” the AP reported. “He often offered vague, semi-coherent answers to questions on Ireland’s battle to save its banks and reverse its deficit.

“Asked by a reporter about speculation he was struggling from the after-effects of late-night drinking,” the AP report continued, “Cowen replied curtly, ‘That’s ridiculous’.’’ Newspapers like the New York Daily News, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times carried the AP report in the US. Some 450 news outlets in 26 countries carried the story.

Fianna Fáil accused Fine Gael of national sabotage. Nobody in his or her right mind would seriously think Fine Gael could organise such a stunning media coup. If they could do that, the party would be in power long ago.

What we witnessed was a spectacular own goal by Fianna Fáil. Its spokespeople had bungled their naked attempt to exploit the situation by denouncing Coveney’s insinuations with a contrived indignation. They might as well have gone chasing after Lyndon Johnson’s pig.

Foreign Minister Micheál Martin quickly recognised the damage. “This is not good, the way it’s playing out,” he said. “There’s no question about that and the fact that it has gained so much momentum is not good,” he told Newstalk. He added that Mr Cowen would have to “knuckle down”. The Taoiseach responded with an apology. He acknowledged that he had let down his colleagues and he was sorry for the controversy. “I want to assure people that there is no disrespect intended and certainly make sure that something like that wouldn’t happen again,” he said. “I want to emphasise that at no stage would I ever entertain disrespecting the people in terms of the office that I hold.” He stressed, however, that assertions about him being drunk or hung-over were untrue.

Deputy Coveney graciously acknowledged the Taoiseach’s apology: “It takes a big person to apologise in the circumstances in which the Taoiseach finds himself. I totally accept what he has to say and fair play to him for doing that.”

NOBODY should make the mistake of thinking the whole thing was a victory for Fine Gael, or anyone else. The big story on Tuesday should have been the previous night’s ‘Freefall’ programme on RTÉ which highlighted the reckless way in which Fianna Fáil had destroyed the economy by ignoring the warning signs in the run-up to the financial crash.

They had essentially handed over the government of the country to the bankers and speculators. When confronted with the obvious signs that a dangerous property bubble was developing, Bertie Ahern said he was advised — “Stay quiet, Taoiseach.” But he did even worse. He went on the offensive and attacked those who were “cribbing and moaning” about the obvious dangers. “In fact,” he said, “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide.”

He later apologised for the suicide reference. “What I was saying was that we shouldn’t be talking ourselves down. I said that then and I say that still today.”

Are there any more stupid than those who do not learn from their mistakes?

The Freefall programmes were a blistering indictment of the Government’s ineptitude in its blind support of the bankers and speculators, thereby inflicting the greatest financial disaster ever on this country.

That should have been the main topic of conversation this week, but instead we had a spurious controversy about Garglegate in Galway.

No wonder we are in such a mess.

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