herald

Thursday 8 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Biffo comes out fighting but is still on a loser at cynical Dail investigation

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Biffo the bear is showing his claws again. After four years of virtual silence, Brian Cowen returned to public life yesterday with a formidable performance at the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry.

No matter how passionately the ex-Taoiseach defends himself, however, he is fighting a losing battle - which means that this political exercise in bashing Fianna Fail has started to work a treat.

Cowen threw his weight around Committee Room 1 with such authority that some wags suggested he should be brought back to run the country. He banged a pen, waved his arms and poured scorn on anyone who rubbed him up the wrong way.

Unfortunately for him, the facts were just not on his side - and he appeared to have learned nothing from the financial nightmare that unfolded on his watch.

Cowen's evidence has been split into two sessions, which for the Government makes him a gift that keeps on giving.

Yesterday dealt with his record as Minister for Finance from 2004 to 2008, when the economy began to dangerously overheat.

Next Wednesday he will be grilled on his time in the Taoiseach's office, which saw the disastrous bank guarantee and Ireland's humiliating collapse into an EU/IMF bailout.

Half-baked

To put it mildly, Cowen has a lot to answer for. He began with a half-baked apology, accepting that people had suffered from his government's actions, but he failed to spell out any major mistakes.

From then on, many of his responses could be summed up in one defiant sentence: "You lot wouldn't have done any better."

In other words, Cowen is still a tribal Fianna Failer who cannot resist any opportunity to beat up on his political opponents.

At one point he even sneered that Enda Kenny might not have known the contents of a Fine Gael election manifesto.

No amount of insults, however, can change Cowen's basic problem. During his four years in the Department of Finance, public money was thrown about like confetti on the back of a property bubble that eventually burst with devastating consequences.

In Budget 2008, for example, he increased public spending by over 10pc on the assumption that tax revenues would rise by 3.3pc - whereas in reality they fell by almost 14pc.

Cowen's defence was folksy but feeble. He described old-age pensioners who could now give their grandchildren a fiver instead of worrying about how many briquettes they had left.

Snatched

This was all very touching, but it ignored one little fact - Fianna Fail were buying up votes with money that soon had to be snatched back, as well as added interest.

If the banking inquiry was just a history lesson, then nobody would care too much. In reality, it is a cynical Government initiative to remind us of which party caused the crash.

As such, it is doing its job nicely - because nobody evokes the bad old days more than Biffo and 'Champagne Charlie' McCreevy, whose evidence on Wednesday was breathtakingly arrogant even by his standards.

In terms of finding out anything new, the banking inquiry has been largely a waste of time.

In terms of helping the Government to get re-elected, Enda Kenny can be well pleased - and from his point of view the best is yet to come.

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