MATT COOPER: I know how you felt next morning, Taoiseach. Sorry, it’s just not on

IT’S confession time. I’m guilty of having once committed much the same sin as Brian Cowen did this week with his drinking/little sleep/subsequent interview routine, but it’s not going to stop me from throwing a few stones at the Taoiseach nonetheless.

I imagine that for many of you the word that immediately springs to mind is hypocrisy, but as the legendary journalist Con Houlihan, a man who was very fond of his pints, used to write in his Evening Press column: “Now read on”.

So let me explain.

Back in July 1997 I had been editor of the Sunday Tribune less than a year. I organised a weekend away in London with my wife for my 31st birthday. I was to leave the office on Saturday afternoon after the bulk of the following day’s newspaper had been produced and I knew what would fill the remaining pages. Just before I left my deputy editor took a phone call and, once it had finished, came to me to announce she had arranged for me to appear on GMTV the following morning.

My task was to review the British Sunday papers and their coverage of an IRA ceasefire that had just been announced. I was a bit surprised, to put it mildly, given that I regarded this as a short holiday. GMTV had wanted to know if we had a London correspondent to put onto the programme. We hadn’t, but Helen Callanan said I’d be in London that morning and that I’d be delighted to do it.

I explained to her that I was going out with friends that evening and hadn’t planned to be up at 7.30am, let alone appear on British television at that hour. But Helen was persuasive. Foolishly, I surrendered details of where I could be collected by a driver at 6.30am the following morning.

Unfortunately, my hunch that it would be a late night proved correct. Although I thought I was minding myself we were out until about 3am and a lot of alcohol was consumed. I was woken by long blasts of the doorbell at my friend’s house at 6.30am.

I headed for the GMTV studios trying not to be sick in the car as I tried to read quickly through the newspapers. As I entered the studio I was very conscious of the smell of drink coming from me. As I was being made up I could hear the producers debating whether or not I was fit to be put on air. I reassured them I was fine, not wanting to endure the humiliation of being told I was too drunk but, unreasonably, not fearing the consequences of what could happen when I was on air. As I took my seat in studio, alongside the Labour MP Kate Hoey, who is from Northern Ireland, a surge of adrenaline took hold. I concentrated fiercely and spoke clearly during my contribution to a near 10-minute discussion. The producers thanked me and took my details both for payment and for what they promised would be future contributions (They’ve never been back since).

I was driven back to my friend’s house and returned to bed. My sleep was disturbed prematurely again, this time at around 9.30am, when my wife woke me in a panic to tell me I had missed my TV appointment. She hadn’t even heard me depart and return.

Later we watched a recording of the programme. My voice had that deepness and huskiness that comes from a long session of drinking. But my friends told me that, to their amazement, I was coherent and articulate and that you would not have known I was in the sobering-up phase. And that’s what would accurately describe anyone who’d had just three or four hours’ sleep after a night’s drinking. Not drunk, but most definitely not sober.

I wasn’t capable of doing much for the rest of the day. Part of me laughed about being able to get away with it, but part of me was also very embarrassed about conforming to the stereotype of the drunken Paddy. Thankfully, I’ve never met anyone in Ireland who saw that early-morning performance of mine on GMTV.

If the owners of the Sunday Tribune had been aware of this episode they would have been entitled to take issue with me for my behaviour. I don’t think it would have been a sacking offence but I suspect they would have marked my card as to future conduct: juvenile and unprofessional behaviour of this kind would not be tolerated. I imagine though that I might have been tempted to deny anything had been wrong with me, just as Brian Cowen did this week when confronted with the evidence of surprisingly parallel behaviour.

Here’s why I think, based on my own personal experience, that throwing a few stones at Cowen is justified.

Over the years I have learned the hard way not just that you shouldn’t work when you are drunk but that being hungover impairs decision-making. I have made countless mistakes as an editor, journalist and broadcaster, but I fear more of them were made when I was tired because of alcohol intake and my judgment was accordingly askew.

Aging doesn’t help the ability to deal with excess alcohol either as I discovered again last weekend (Having gone off drink for the first seven months of 2010, and having stuck to my decision rigidly, I have returned to socialising with alcohol). A very enjoyable Saturday evening that ended in the early hours of Sunday morning meant that Sunday was a difficult day in dealing with the aftermath and tiredness, especially getting up before 9am to bring some of the kids to rugby training.

And it took some time on Monday morning to get myself going too. There were a couple of hard sessions in the gym too on Monday and Tuesday in an effort to knock myself back into shape.

EVEN though I love drinking pints in the company of friends in the pub – I don’t like drinking at home – it happens far less often now for all sorts of reasons: pressure of time, family commitments and workload among them. My intake is restricted to the weekend. It’s all I can manage.

As a rule, I don’t drink in the 24 hours before a radio or TV appearance. When you are being paid to appear in public you have responsibilities to your employer and audience and you should have a sense of professionalism, to be the best you can be, too. So enough about me.

The point I’m trying to make is that as you age there are physical reasons why you have to take more care with your use of alcohol and that as you mature you should realise there are times when personal enjoyment and relaxation comes second to your work and family commitments.

I’m stunned by the number of people who seemed to think that what the Taoiseach did last Monday evening/Tuesday morning is a private matter and that it should not have been allowed to become a media storm this week. His behaviour was in the public interest and it was important.

He had committed to addressing a large audience on Tuesday in a radio interview and came to the task on four hours sleep after a feed of drink and a lack of sufficient sleep. It is reasonable to assume he wasn’t 100% fit for the rest of the day.

Leave aside the symbolism of partying as the country teeters on the brink of economic Armageddon: things are so serious the Taoiseach should be mature enough to know his position is so important as to make such behaviour intolerable.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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