10 April 2008 Edition
Brian Cowen: Sound bites or substance?
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
ENDA KENNY is the person with most to lose from the imminent appointment of Brian Cowen as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach. Kenny’s job as Fine Gael leader and entire political career are on the line and the omens do not look good.
Next in line with livelihoods and futures at stake are the masses of workers and their families, from the low-paid to middle-income households with big mortgages, no pensions and spiralling living costs.
This community needs Brian Cowen to step up and show astute leadership in what is now clearly a deepening recession as he inherits record leaps in unemployment, with March’s 12,000 new people signing on for benefit beating the previous one-month-high set just weeks before in February. There are now nearly 200,000 people on short-term unemployment benefit.
The challenge facing Cowen is all the more difficult as the spending valve of government is also faltering, with tax returns already €600 million behind forecasts for the first three months of the year, and the Central Bank have cut predictions for economic growth to less than 2 per cent for the whole of 2008.
For an economy built on the need for continual growth, more shops, more houses and more spending merely standing still as is the case in 2008 is not an option.
As households deal with paying off high debts while juggling increasing energy and food costs and contemplating negative equity in their house values, they are facing years of mounting debt and seem to be left literally paying for the boom.
Brian Cowen has a lot on his plate as Taoiseach and it would seem that his easiest task will be trading punches with Enda Kenny. In his previous encounters he has swatted Kenny with ease, most notably in exchanges surrounding the Mahon Tribunal. More crucial, though, was how he undermined the entire Fine Gael electoral campaign last year in just one press conference.
In the last days of the election campaign, Cowen pronounced in one of the morning Fianna Fáil press conferences that the election boiled down to “a choice between sound bites and substance” and that the Fine Gael ‘Contract with Ireland’, which had been the centrepiece of Kenny’s campaign, was riddled with holes.
Cowen’s interjection typifies his political style: gruff, clever and at times deadly. Hilary Clinton said tellingly just weeks ago when her campaign was in crisis: “You govern in prose.” Well Cowen’s prose is a vastly different calibre than Bertie Ahern’s.
While Cowen alternates between personas that are in equal measure paternal, aloof and sarcastic – mixed with at times biting humour – it will take something more to steward the coalition through the current economic malaise.
He has held six ministerial posts – Labour, Energy, Transport and Communications, Health, Foreign Affairs and Finance – none of them with particular or outstanding success. His current stature comes from gruffly holding the purse strings and doling out the bonuses for particular ministers and flagship projects. Conducting the orchestra of government when the mood music is stormy will be a much greater challenge.