Comment: Are former colleagues scapegoating Cowen?

As Fianna Fail struggles to recover, and looks hesitantly, if a little optimistically, to the future, is there an attempt on the part of some of his former colleagues to scapegoat Brian Cowen for the party’s woes?

As Fianna Fail struggles to recover, and looks hesitantly, if a little optimistically, to the future, is there an attempt on the part of some of his former colleagues to scapegoat Brian Cowen for the party’s woes?

Mr Cowen was party leader and Taoiseach at a critical time for the party and the country. The buck stopped on his desk, as it did in the case of his predecessor Bertie Ahern. And he must take his share of the responsibility for the dreadful state of the country and party.

Not that Fianna Fail’s fortunes, or indeed the fortunes of any party, really matter when compared to the terrible state of the country.

Rebuilding Ireland, and removing the terrible burden of the economic war from the backs of the people, remains the priority. Parties can come and go, as far as the vast majority of people are concerned.

As people brace themselves for more austerity, their anger is real and understandable. And they continue to want answers from those who steered us into the mess.

Bertie Ahern has self-destructed in a number of interviews. Self-pity, self-justification, rubbish conclusions, delivered in fractured language, are not serving Mr Ahern well. And we still await the Mahon report on his personal finances.

Mr Cowen continues to keep a low profile. But, down the road, he will need to add his contribution to the national debate on that sorry chapter in Irish life.

Monday night’s RTE television documentary on Mr Cowen’s years did shed some new light on what was going on in the corridors of power. It showed, if nothing else, that some of those intimately involved in decision making are now trying to assume the role of bystanders at that time.

It is frankly not good enough for people like Mary Hanafin, Micheal Martin and Willie O’Dea to stand in judgement of Mr Cowen’s stewardship without admitting to their own contribution to the mess. What about collective Cabinet responsibility?

This is particularly so in the case of Ms Hanafin and Mr Martin. They were there from the early days, the Ahern years, which the documentary clearly showed were all about retaining power. And that was, literally, at all costs.

Mr Ahern’s pre-election Ard Fheis speech, in which he threw around promises like the proverbial confetti at a wedding, was an illustration that a third term for Fianna Fail was his priority. And to hell with the country’s welfare.

Mr Cowen, at least publicly, held his silence when he moved to the Department of Finance and must have been aware of the gathering storm clouds after Charlie McCreevy was sent to Brussels because Mr Ahern thought the government’s image was suffering. But that silence extended to Mr Martin, Ms Hanafin and Mr O’Dea and all the others who were serving in government with Mr Ahern.

Jobs were protected. Their jobs. The bandwagon would roll on. Fianna Fail would make its way back to office and sure couldn’t one worry about the economy at that stage.

Politics, rather than public service, was the supreme consideration. It was a bit rich, therefore, for former colleagues of Mr Cowen to speak in the documentary about the rushed nature of the bank guarantee and the alleged failure to adopt a communications strategy and so on.

If Ms Hanafin and Mr O’Dea, in particular, felt so strongly about the early morning agreement to bail out the banks, why did they not raise hell at the next Cabinet meeting?

Why did they not take the ultimate step and resign from the Cabinet on such an important issue of principle? Again, it was about the protection of jobs. Their jobs.

There was a lot of nonsense spoken about the significance of the welcome home for Mr Cowen after his election as party leader and Taoiseach. Ms Hanafin thought at the time that it would not go down well in her Dun Laoghaire constituency.

The Laois-Offaly constituency, Mr Cowen, his family and supporters, were fully entitled to celebrate his elevation to high office. In fact, it was an enjoyable party to observe or be part of. There were crowds, good natured banter and a song or too. It was similar to when Jack Lynch returned to glory in Cork all those decades ago, not to mention Albert Reynolds’s return to Longford and John Bruton’s going home to Meath.

By the way, had Ms Hanafin not left her native Thurles, and represented Tipperary in the Dail, would she not have received a similar welcome home on returning to her native heath having attained high political office?

The reality is that if the economy had continued to perform, with the appropriate remedial action taken at the right time, Mr Cowen’s triumphant tour of his constituency, his apparent over reliance on close friends and colleagues for advice, the high salaries then paid to politicians and so on, would not have been issues with voters at all.

They became issues when it emerged, in all its horrible and stark detail, that we were led by a succession of incompetent Fianna Fail-led governments.

Much blame must attach to Mr Ahern, given that his desire for power meant the rot set in early on. Staying in government, rather than competently running the economy, became the priority.

Remember Mr Ahern’s claptrap about discovering his socialist soul, following the Fianna Fail think-in in west Cork, not to mention his perusal of the party’s appalling local election results. But nobody close to Mr Ahern, it seems, was prepared to shout stop when commentators were warning on television and radio programmes that the property bubble would burst with horrific economic consequences.

And what of the advice given to the then government by highly-paid civil servants who surely should have been up to speed about the ticking fiscal time bomb ?

They, too, failed. Or was their advice just simply ignored ?

There was light touch regulation, the manner in which some bankers misled the government, the arrogance and how well paid politicians became hopelessly out of touch with people.

When Mr Cowen went to the Department of Finance, he failed to deal with the growing storm. And he failed, too, to grasp the problem by the scruff of the neck when the sky fell in shortly after becoming Taoiseach.

The late Brian Lenihan, as Minister for Finance, struggled and struggled in an attempt to get the message across that the country was in a dreadful downward spiral. Most of his senior colleagues appeared to be unable to grasp that sad and salient fact. Talk of a communications strategy is greatly exaggerated.

Embarking on a communications strategy means you must have a message to communicate. That Fianna Fail-led government simply did not have a coherent message. It staggered from crisis to crisis until, inevitably, it fell apart.

The Economic War rages on. Talking of an international downturn causing our problems does not work any more.

The figures, as released by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan on last Friday, are truly staggering. We continue to face years of austerity with no certainty that the economic strategy will work.

Domestic and international economic growth will be hugely important. After four years of austerity, the difference between what the State collects in revenue and what it spends will still be over 5 billion euro in 2015. It might concentrate minds, by the way, in the run-up to marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising and what form the ceremony should take.

It is a grim political and social legacy to hand on for those who led this country when we slowly but surely sank into economic oblivion.

Mr Cowen must take his share of the responsibility. But he should not be scapegoated now that he has retired from politics.

Collective Cabinet responsibility means that other must share the blame. Those advising the then Taoiseach and Cabinet should also be in the blame loop.

It is deeply cynical of those still with career ambitions to attempt to wash their hands of responsibility for the circumstances which led to The Economic War.

Mr Cowen should not be left stand alone in the blame game.