herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Con Houlihan: Good men aren't always wise

Brian cowen's run of good luck has ground to a halt and he deserves to be castigated. But we're missing the point when we take him to task over a drinking session

He is a terrible man entirely: he drinks and he smokes -- next thing he will be playing poker or going to the racetrack to elucidate some questions on his personal financial status.

Brian Cowen had a great run for the first three-quarters of his life: he was born into a county that was just finding its feet in Gaelic football and hurling and taking its place among the nations of the earth. Brian was part of all this.

He played good football himself and was very much part of the scene in the football buses that took the faithful all over the country in those yeasty years. He had every reason to believe that he had been born into a lucky tribe. He inherited his father's seat in Leinster House and soon rose to the Cabinet table. He became Taoiseach by default.

Then the wine and roses began to diminish and he is now going through the most difficult part of his career. Last month he was castigated because he stayed out a little too late at a party and wasn't fighting fit at an interview with RTE the next morning. We would have been the laugh of the civilised world -- not to mention the uncivilised world -- if we were to force him out of office on account of such a venial sin.

Michael Collins was addicted to smoking and drinking and was in poor health on the occasion of his death. Winston Churchill floated through World War Two on a sea of champagne and brandy. We remember Boris Yeltsin having difficulty in descending the steps of a plane at Shannon Airport but it hardly got as much publicity as Brian Cowen's own goal.

One rather aggressive political correspondent advised Brian to give up the drink thus implying that he was in a bad way from it. This, of course, is nonsense. Most citizens in the Republic have a drink problem -- the price of it. Brian, despite his occasional late nights, is eminently capable of performing his duties. I have no time for his politics but I rather like the man: anyone who can sing such a ballad as Paddy's Green Erin Shore cannot be entirely bad.

It is a great time for political advisers to be giving out recommendations from the depths of their hearts. My neighbour and sometimes friend, Vincent Browne, has recommended that Enda Kenny find a quiet room and go there with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver. He doesn't say whether he should use the revolver before or after the whiskey. Nevertheless, as unsolicited testimonials in the advertising business go, it is outstanding.

Nobody in this generation has taken more abuse than Enda. He has brought the Fine Gael Party out of obscurity by sheer dint of travelling the country and reviving regional branches that were moribund and refurbishing branches that were apathetic. He has committed no own goals and yet there are people, many of them in his own party, who are not noticeably loyal to him. Richard Bruton obviously has waited for Enda to do the hard work and then he hopes to reap the benefits himself. Being leader of the Fine Gael party is about as hazardous a job as being wed to Henry VIII.

In our own time we have seen such outstanding leaders as Peter Barry, Alan Dukes and Michael Noonan thrown to the wolves. While all this is going on, there is a sub-plot. The presidential election is coming close and there is a terrible fear that some candidate from show business or worse will get the most prestigious post in the State. And of course Fianna Fail are active to settle their own domestic affairs. Brian Cowen's tenure of the leadership is almost as frail as Enda Kenny's.

There are some intriguing aspects to the presidential race even though it hasn't started. The last time out we saw Brian Lenihan Snr deemed unworthy of a seat in the Cabinet but worthy of the highest seat in the land. This time there is a parallel: we often see Bertie Ahern called "the disgraced Taoiseach" but you can be sure that he will get strong support from the Grand Old Party when it comes to the voting. Success for him would be seen as a defeat for the Mahon Tribunal and as a success for Fianna Fail. It is unlikely that he will succeed especially if Fine Gael put all their power behind Sean Kelly who would be a candidate acceptable to many people.

In all the jostling for position in the race for the Aras and for the premiership, it is almost forgotten that the biggest problem of all has at last raised its tiresome head: most people saw NAMA as a bad joke from the start. Almost everybody sees it that way now.

It was based on the notion that the "developers" would hand back the money they had borrowed or hand back the property they had bought with it. The things they had bought included mansions and racehorses and paintings, all the kind of property that can be easily transferred from husband to wife. This has been happening and there is nothing that NAMA can do about it.

In short, NAMA not only failed but has been seen to have failed. An outside body should have been brought in from the start and thus it would have been seen as a scheme to rescue the economy rather than to rescue Fianna Fail. It is happening now at this late stage and we can only hope that the experts (real or otherwise) can achieve the impossible.

There is no simple solution and there is no point in Brian Lenihan saying that the crisis is over and that the good days are about to return. Brian Cowen, who was Minister for Finance during the crucial years, must take some of the responsibility. Whether he should resign or not is a matter for himself. Staying on for an extra hour of what was obviously a very good party shouldn't undermine his stature. I know he is a good man but whether he is a wise man I am not sure.

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