Brian Cowen, Fianna Fail and Ireland
Brian Cowen’s decision to step down as Leader of Fianna Fail, still for now Ireland’s largest party, had become inevitable. I predicted a week or so ago that his decision then to cling to the post was a mistake – for him as much as the party and the country – and it has ended much as I had expected.
But here we are now, and before he goes riding off into the sunset (which he won’t do for a few weeks, as he stays on as Taoiseach until the election), I’m going to say something nice about him to balance all the other stuff right now. It’s not that I think he was the right person to lead the country, as it was clear to me for some considerable time that he lacked the desire and the capacity to create that kind of partnership with the people that every political leader must fashion if they are to survive – something that Bertie Ahern was very good at (whatever about any other failings) – in the same way that Tony Blair was very good at it in Britain, while Gordon Brown couldn’t do it.
But Cowen did understand one thing that, in the long run, is vital to the future of universities: that we are now in an era in which knowledge trumps everything. The other day I heard some economist, I think, on the radio suggesting that we must now return to less ambitious industrial development in which we’ll start chasing call centres again. This is complete nonsense, because we cannot return to that. Not only are we still a very large distance away from being competitive in such contexts (and could only become so by further massive pay cuts), but such investments now routinely go to Asia, and I expect soon to Africa; they are not coming back to us. Regardless of what anyone might think, knowledge-intensive investments and indigenous start-ups are where our only really promising future now lies.
In supporting, as Finance Minister, the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, which in turn had been formulated under the leadership of Michéal Martin (possibly his successor-to-be as Leader of Fianna Fail) with the support also of Mary Hanafin (also a possible contender), Cowen showed some ability to understand this vision, which he continued to support as Taoiseach. Admittedly this was somewhat undermined by the cuts in higher education that have also followed, but I would still argue that he leaves an important legacy that may help us into the future. I say that without wanting to deny that other parts of his legacy will seem less attractive.
I have met Brian Cowen on a fairly large number of occasions and have had occasional opportunities to exchange thoughts with him. His career is not going to end in a happy way, and I am afraid he has himself to blame for much of that. But nevertheless, I appreciate an important part of what he did in office, and on a personal level I wish him well.