As all political careers end in failure, it is traditional to look back over them and ask where they went wrong. Supposing for a moment that a single false move really could explain everything, what was Cowen’s?
Some say that as Bertie Ahern’s anointed successor he was pretty much cursed from the start. The party’s triumph as they crowned him was so loud because it was trying to drown out a whisper. Haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t Bertie meant to be the good and true leader who would make everything right after Haughey? Wasn’t he going to clear up all the questions?
Some day it will dawn on the party membership, on the country in general, that what’s wrong with Fianna Fáil cannot be fixed by just changing the guy at the top.
But people seemed willing to give him a chance, so I don’t think it’s true that Cowen was finished before he started. The first problem of his own making was probably the Lisbon referendum fiasco. While this made him look unexpectedly weak, I could argue that it still wasn’t really Brian Cowen’s fault. The 2007 election certainly hadn’t been a rout, but the majority of us did not go to the polling station to return a Fianna Fáil government to power. And yet, thanks to the political ineptitude of the former Green Party (yes I’m calling them that already), we found one jammed into our gullet. While the reasons for the rejection of Lisbon were many, I think a major one was resentment of this unwarranted government. That was not within Cowen’s realistic control.
So then of course there was the economic collapse. Again, not exactly his fault. Well at least not Cowen the Taoiseach’s; his stewardship of the Department of Finance had doubtless contributed greatly to our mad over-dependence on the property sector, but the deeply corrupting relationship between Fianna Fáil and its contributors is, again, not the work of one man. Much of the country was complicit in it.
Then, the embarrassment of a second referendum. But we can all be pretty ashamed of that one. “Not so independent-minded now you’re broke, eh?” Less said there the better really.
So the list of mistakes is long, but no one seems really enough in itself to be labelled the turning point in Brian Cowen’s career. Is it just that, with the economy in ruins, we need to blame somebody and he’s in the firing line? No doubt that’s how it seems to him. Or was it, as is so often the case, simply the slow accumulation of many small missteps?
No. If any political career failed in one single moment, this was that one. It happened when he agreed that the people of Ireland would pay back the losses of speculating bankers. That was a mistake of such enormity, you wonder if he actually had the authority to do it. Is it constitutional to give the country away?
Without this things would still be pretty bad, but he would probably have been leading his party into an election now. One in which they would have been merely punished rather than summarily executed. But by sacrificing his people to save bankers, Brian Cowen doomed his career. Doomed a lot of our careers.