Mysteries of the political endgame

In an often misquoted passage in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain, the late British politician Enoch Powell wrote that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ Politicians in fact often make every imaginable effort to prove him right, and in Ireland at this time Taoiseach Brian Cowen is working hard in this endeavour.

Not every reader will share this opinion, but I am of the view that Brian Cowen will leave a legacy of some achievements. Of all the politicians I have met (and I have met many, from different countries), he was one who perhaps most easily understood the value of universities in a modern country and society, and having understood this he genuinely tried to do something about it. Working with Micheal Martin (now set to vote against him in this week’s confidence vote) he secured the adoption of the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which changed the funding framework for  research.

But right now, Brian Cowen is in that curious mood that seems to grip some politicians when crisis threatens to overwhelm their tenure – the mood that persuades them that their continuing in office is a matter of national interest, when virtually all the signs shout otherwise. Furthermore that mood, once it has asserted itself, leads the victim to certain doom, not least because the wider population quickly learns to distrust someone who claims emphatically that their political survival is pivotal in securing the national interest.

I have met Brian Cowen (though not as often as other Irish politicians), and I have always found him to be decent, courteous, interested and intelligent. When he was a minister – and regardless of how one might evaluate his achievements in office – he was clearly in command of his environment. Not so as Taoiseach. Almost from the word go it became clear that he could not adopt the leadership style that this office demands, and in particular that he simply could not communicate to the nation the kind of message that would inform, encourage and inspire. A  man with a very close connection with his party, he did not manage to show that he could transcend its organisational boundaries.

Brian Cowen’s political career is coming to its end. That much, I believe, he cannot change. But he had choices about how that might play out, and he has chosen the path that will in the end break him much more comprehensively than any other option he might have gone for. I cannot help feeling that it is sad, and not just for Brian Cowen.

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6 Comments on “Mysteries of the political endgame”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Such a pity he didn’t have that same grasp on economics as he had for the realities of a university education. But then how could he have. His source, the source he had from a young man was providing flawed information. And then, how could the source be expected to think in a strategic way. It wasn’t designed that way. But you’d think that as the only Country in the Euro that had experience of being subsumed in a collective currency we’d have reacted with a better knowledge.


    • I agree that he seemed to have understood very slowly and very late the economic effects of government policies towards property development.


      • Ferdinand,
        You are far too forgiving. There is evidence that EVENTUALLY the penny dropped for Brian Cowen. That places him ahead of others. However, it needs to be emphasised – in the face of the evasive ploy that blames our situation on plague-like “hard times” – that what got us here was STUPIDITY.

        That is to say, the property bubble was not sent by God. Nor is it something that can be criticised from a leftist perspective alone, because from any right wing perspective this was silly. What followed after the celtic tiger was the work of very, very stupid people supported by the occasional chancer who despite knowing the score lacked the integrity to speak up.

        No one with any claim to intelligence could possibly have failed to see the tiger slope off years ago as factories closed, the rash of houses and apartments in the most unlikely places, the mounting evidence that so many were impossible to sell and my favourite: the furniture store at almost every roundabout.

        http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/

        http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/notes/colum-mccaffery/wisdom-at-last-from-bertie-and-seanie/139233476136504


        • I don’t disagree, Colum, but might add that Ireland was not alone. The subprime idiocy started in the US, and UK banks were also wholly irresponsible and not held back by government until it was too late. Greece, Portugal and Italy also ran up (in the last two cases still unresolved) unmanageable public debts. It was the spirit of the age.

          In essence we are saying that Ireland should have been better than that, and that’s fine, but it’s a big ask in some respects. Though I agree that proportionately we were particularly mad.

          • anna notaro Says:

            for the record, Italian public debt has nothing to do with the ‘subprime idiocy’ and the spirit of the age, as you put it, but has been accumulating over the past 30 years or so, actually Italian banks have traditionally been very conservative with regards to loans etc.
            On Mr Cowen, I’m struck by some parallelism with Mr Brown, and we all know how it ended in the UK


  2. I’m not at all surprised that Brian Cowen is not gently stepping aside in an agreed succession. The logic of going down fighting is clear.
    For FF to survive the coming election, it needs to paint Cowen and his inner circle as Villains, and Martin and his new front bench as heroes, clearing the Mad King and his henchmen from the palace. Then folk can vote for the new Martin led party with a clear conscience, telling themselves it was all the fault of Cowen and Co. Frankly, if it could be arranged for Martin to duke it out with Cowen on Kildare Street with sabres and put his severed head on a spike on front of the Dail, for the good of the party, they would.
    Cowen politely resigning in Martins favour would look like an arranged succession within the same old crowd, which won’t make voters who might be convinced to vote FF feel confident that there was a clean break.
    Politics is tough work, half magic and storytelling.


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