Ghosts of yesteryear still stalking the corridors of Co Offaly

Five years after the crash, ex-taoiseach Brian Cowen has been vindicated and Fianna Fáil is winning back voter trust, his TD brother Barry tells political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

A week out from the election is not when a party, in the throes of recovery, wants or even needs an old political ghost to reappear.

However, in one Co Offaly household the spectres of the past are never far from the mind. Brian Cowen, the ex-taoiseach poster boy of the crash, is back on the canvass prowl, for family and for party.

And while he remains a solely private background supporter with his personal political ambitions firmly parked, his TD brother and Dáil candidate Barry says the response on the doorsteps show Brian, and by extension the party, is no longer a pariah over the painful decisions he made.

“I was asked by a local radio station a day or two ago about him, ‘was he out canvassing with me?’, something like that. They’d heard a rumour.

“I told them if you were going for election wouldn’t your brother be out with you,” the younger Cowen explains in characteristic bullishness.

“It was always believed that time would treat him a lot more fairly than the immediacy of the problem [the crash].

“It was hard to explain when you were in the depths of making those adjustments, but it is much easier to look back now at the fruits of those works,” he says.

The argument —namely that Fianna Fáil has learnt its lessons but should be quietly given some credit for helping the country through the economic crisis with policies a Fine Gael-Labour coalition claimed were unneeded but continued themselves — is central to the party’s election strategy.

While it ignores the pre-crash damage which made those painful cuts necessary, given the party’s seemingly sudden rise from also-rans to potential election winners in the past fortnight, the line appears to be gaining traction.

However, for the Cowens, its more personal. From the car ride from Tullamore to Birr — where Brian appears to canvass alongside his brother at Grant Engineering to talk shop at one of Co Offaly’s biggest employers a day after Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited — and from Ferbane to Kinnity, the message is the same.

Brian Cowen
Brian Cowen

A hung Dáil and Fianna Fáil’s potential return in the first election after it faced annihilation shows, in the family’s view, that the actions of Brian and his cabinet are, if not forgiven then, at least better understood.

“People’s response in that election [2011] was very venomous against us, people needed almost somebody, something, some organisation to blame.

“We were in the firing line. There was a lot of hurtful things said. So we feel some vindication, obviously,” says Barry.

“We recognise the severity of the crash. But it’s only after a period of time since, the efforts of that government to take the country away from a cliff at the expense of Fianna Fáil are recognised.

“We did 70% of the heavy lifting [of balancing finances]. And voters now recognise those bona fides,” he argues.

Barry, who made similar remarks in a Dáil debate hours after the bank inquiry was published in late January, explains Brian’s lack of media profile to address the matter himself. His brother, he indicates, is “from the Liam Cosgrave school of ex-taoisigh” which argues when you’re gone, you’re gone.

However, Barry clearly brings the personal family position — what he describes eloquently as the price of power, then gruffly as “getting a pat on the back or a kick up the arse” — to the election campaign battle.

He admits to being surprised at how “vindictive” Taoiseach Enda Kenny was for “seeking to have ‘that’ inquiry [the bank inquiry] be his election launch pad” and smirks when pointing out it has “backfired”.

Ghosts of yesteryear still stalking the corridors of Co Offaly

He rejects the prospect of being the minority party in a mooted Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition, arguing Fianna Fáil could be bigger and hinting at 40-plus seats.

He says the public was “sold a pup” by Fine Gael- Labour over the 2011 promise that there was a less cruel way to save the economy than Fianna Fáil’s measures, while stressing the party is now “prudent” after hard-earned lessons.

And, crucially, he puts the fact that the latest Red C poll shows, despite the chest-thumping, Fianna Fáil is still only on 19%, hardly the stuff of dreams, as being the result of voters turning to “extreme left wing and wild Independents”.

He points to the current coalition’s broken promises as the cause of mainstream parties’ trust being lost.

The arguments dovetail with the party’s election 2016 plan. However, they do not always ring true. Even in Offaly, where Barry will waltz home after next Friday’s vote, Fianna Fáil’s economic crisis legacy is apparent.

In the few doors that open in Kinnity there is a polite but mixed reaction.

At Milnes Foods, the TD is warmly welcomed by all but one worker, who pointedly walks away. “He might be a maybe,” Barry says.

The subject of Brian comes up again, alongside power and the price paid if you get it wrong. Would Barry like, some day, to follow in his brother’s footsteps? For someone known for not pulling punches, his answer is tempered by family experience.

Ghosts of yesteryear still stalking the corridors of Co Offaly

After joking that a 24-hour controversy this week over his apparent confirmation of leadership ambitions was just a misunderstanding because he had stated he was as ambitious as the person next to him — finance spokesperson Michael McGrath — Barry admits the position “is a very difficult role to assume”.

It can be lonely, he says, carries “a huge weight on anyone’s shoulders”, a “huge pressure on family life” and “can have a lasting pressure on your life after politics too”.

Five years on Brian Cowen is playing a background supporting role, but the economic crash scars for the nation and his family continue to be to the fore.

Ghosts of yesteryear still stalking the corridors of Co Offaly

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