The man who would be king

*That* Hot Press interview with Brian Cowen from May 2007.

Is Brian Cowen Ireland's Gordon Brown? Maybe, except Cowen seems to to genuinely like Bertie Ahern. For now he's more interested in tackling the Rainbow coalition – whom he accuses of treating the electorate like fools.

Minister for Finance Brian Cowen is widely perceived by political analysts to be the natural successor to Bertie Ahern as leader of the Fianna Fáil party.

Several party colleagues have suggested to hotpress – off the record, of course – that Cowen is the only realistic candidate to take over when Bertie’s controversial tenure as Taoiseach comes to an end.

Since becoming a TD at the age of 24, when Cowen replaced his deceased father as an Offaly representative in Leinster House, the man nicknamed ‘Biffo’ has held five of the most the important Cabinet positions, including Health, Foreign Affairs, Transport and Labour, and has presided over three budgets as finance minister.

Other feathers in his political cap include playing a significant role, while Minister for Foreign Affairs, in the Northern Ireland peace process and helping Ireland to gain a place on the United Nations Security Council.

Bizarrely, Cowen was once verbally attacked by Rev Ian Paisley, who said in front of a public gathering: “Somebody told me the other day the reason his lips were so thick was that when his mother was bringing him up he was a very disobedient young boy, so she used to put glue on his lips and put him to the floor and keep him there. That has been recorded in his physical make-up.”

Cowen is adamant that this jibe did not hurt him personally.

Asked during the course of this hotpress interview to comment on Paisley’s insult, Cowen responded: “It wasn’t very sensible was it? I don’t know what the purpose of it was. Look, I have said a few things myself in my time maybe I shouldn’t have said, so let’s forgive and forget. It is not a big deal. My mother wasn’t upset – that’s the important thing. I have met him since and he never brought it up. It is not an issue for me.”

Jason O’Toole: How do you respond to the suggestion that smoking cigarettes, while holding the position of Minister for Health, was setting a bad example?

Brian Cowen: I don’t smoke very much. I’d only smoke now and again when I have a drink or something. I’m sort of a casual smoker. I might spend a month not smoking and then have a few – that sort of thing. Somebody said that to me once and I said, ‘I didn’t ask for this job!’ (laughs) You get the jobs you get. I think sometimes political correctness goes way beyond what’s necessary. But, certainly when I was Minister for Health, I reduced my level of smoking to practically nil. So, I was conscious of that at the time.

Did you ever try marijuana?

Anyone who went to the UCD bar in the ‘70s that didn’t get a whiff of marijuana would be telling you a lie. I would say there were a couple of occasions when it was passed around – and, unlike President Clinton, I did inhale! There wasn’t a whole lot in it really – (it was like) a Sweet Afton, as a 10-year-old, under a railway bridge on a rainy day, in small town Ireland in the late ‘60s. I certainly got more enjoyment out of a few pints.

How is Bertie handling the controversies surrounding him?

He’s in good form. This is a controversy that he will deal with. We are not naïve, we know where it is coming from – well orchestrated, the timing is obvious. It is distracting from the real issues of the day. And it can’t take away, at the end of the day, from his legacy and achievements.

If we are to take Bertie’s statement at face value, it suggests that he was hiding money from his estranged wife. Was this not wrong, particularly considering that he was Minister for Finance at the time?

Look, he came to a difficult time in his life. He has given a full explanation ...Issues have arisen because of the interaction with the tribunal – who have been asking various questions. These have emerged in February and March of this year, so he’ll deal with those (pauses)... further interactions that have taken place since then. But the basic point remains the same – that he is a person who’s committed to the public service, his record shows it. He is not a man of lavish lifestyles. Most of us put all these things into a context – that there were issues for himself at that time that he had to deal with. Before, during and since then – in terms of his public duties – he has done nothing that is corrupt, he has done nothing that is criminal, he has done nothing wrong.

What if Trevor Sargent says the Greens might be willing to go into coalition with FF, but with an alternative nomination for Taoiseach?

He can’t choose our leader. If he wants to negotiate with the party, he has to do it on the basis of mutual respect. We obtained a mandate the last time, we had 775,000 voters. I don’t know how many Trevor has but, the point I’ll make is, our voters are entitled to respect too. As far as I’m concerned, I would demand that respect. And I will expect the size of our mandate to be reflected in any policy programme that would be negotiated with anybody. If people want to set such pre-conditions, I’m afraid they are opting themselves out of the process, rather than in. There are no circumstances in which such a pre-condition would be accepted.

Electing a new leader might be the only option in order for Fianna Fáil to create a government with another party.

Bertie Ahern, in the last ten years, has brought peace and prosperity to this country. The last number of days have reinforced the significance of what he has achieved. The determination of the next election should not be based on the details of a house that was bought 14 years ago. The determination of the next government must be based on what party is best equipped to bring this country where we need to go next. We have set out in the most transparent way ever – because of our financial and physical plans – how we would do it, what our priorities would be, and how we can make sure that we can balance budgets, so that by the end of 2012 – what I think will be a significant achievement for Fianna Fáil – we can produce a net debt-free country. That’s what we are concentrating on. We will fight this election under Bertie Ahern. We will seek a renewal of our mandate under Bertie Ahern. And we will negotiate after the election under his leadership.

Would you go into coalition with Sinn Fein?


If they are good enough for ministerial position in the North, why not here?

The government mechanism in the North is a mandatory coalition arrangement under the Good Friday and the Saint Andrew’s agreement. The whole system is about giving as inclusive a representation as possible in a divided community, which doesn’t have the tax-raising powers, which doesn’t have – remember it is a local administration – responsibility for defence. So, there are specific circumstances behind that arrangement in Northern Ireland. With regard to why Fianna Fáil wouldn't go into government with Sinn Fein in this election, we made it clear we don’t believe there is a sufficient compatibility of policy positions.

All the parties are singing the same mantra about Sinn Fein.

People retain a suspicion about a whole range of areas. For me, I have to say, I want to acknowledge the journey that they’ve made. It would be churlish not to. The question now will be their performance thereafter, making sure that none of that residual militarism or paramilitaries ever emerge again. I think they are committed to going the exclusively democratic road and it should be acknowledged. But what I am saying is, at this stage of their political development we don’t see them as an option. That’s our choice.

What about Labour?

Often there is a conditioning that goes on during election time that says, ‘Oh, well, forget about that – that’s not going to happen.’ I mean, the people will decide what they like. The people can put Fianna Fáil into government if they want. The whole idea of having an election is for the people to decide – not for us to condition what they may or may not decide.

According to the opinion polls, it looks like Fianna Fáil will lose maybe 13-15 seats in this election.

If you look at the opinion polls, the momentum is behind us. Our canvasses confirm that. I mean, the issues that are coming up, in the main, are localised issues. People recognise the economy is going well. I don’t buy the notion for a moment that Fianna Fáil are fated to lose 15 seats because I think now people are looking at what the choices are. I have put forward, on behalf of my party, detailed annual budget projections for the next five years. What my priorities are. How we will fund them. The opposition haven’t done that.

I presume your father influenced your political ideology

Oh yeah. I was born into a tradition. It doesn’t take away your independence of thinking, though. I mean, you work within that framework for the politics you believe in thereafter. There is no point in people rationalising afterwards, ‘Oh, I would have ended up here anyway’, because that is intellectually dishonest. I was born into that position and I am convinced it is the best political vehicle in the country. But I acknowledge that’s subjectively based.

I’m sure he would be very proud to see you getting so many ministerial positions.

Yes, he would have been very proud. I was the first Offaly man to ever be in the Cabinet. As far as I am aware, we were the last county in the country to be in that position. Obviously, I had ambitions. By the same token, I think it has become an unfortunate perception in politics that you can’t have influence unless you are a Minister. I think there is too much of this, ‘If you don’t have a stripe on your sleeve you can’t be effective’.

You must have ambitions of one day being Taoiseach?

My genuine view on that is this – because my own dad died so suddenly at 52, I genuinely don’t get up in the morning wondering about that. What I do know is that – after the Taoiseach’s tenure is over and we hope it won’t be shortly – the parliamentary party will decide that. You can’t just say, ‘I want to be leader of the party’. Other acts determine whether you will or you won’t. It reminds me often of people who want to run as candidates – sometimes you have to bring them into a corner and say, ‘Look, your role is as an activist, you won’t be elected’. For me, there’s a number of people who would be interested in that position, but the party will decide.

You limited the art tax exemption to €250,000. Do you not think that might have been a bad idea?

It met the equity rule. When I did the study of who exactly benefited from this exemption – by placing it at €250,000 per year, I was exempting, in effect, 95% of the people who actually get the exemption. What I wasn’t prepared to continue on with – because it had gone beyond the contemplation of the provision in the first place – was people on €7million, €8million (pauses)...this was for struggling artists! As you know, in some areas of art now – including music and other businesses – the commerciality issue is as much a part of success as the artistic content.

We have to show, as far as I am concerned, a tax system that is credible – that seems to be fair to everybody. I didn’t get rid of the exemption – the modification I produced, and the motivation behind it, was the right one. And I don’t think, in any way, it should decrease the level of artistic endeavour in the country. There is a certain level beyond which one should – despite one’s artistic contribution – make a financial contribution.

But the likes of U2 simply set up a company for tax purposes in Holland.

This is a response that people – the tax planners – can come to. In fairness, I met Bono at the Irish-England game in Croke Park, the rugby match. He brought it up; it was a private discussion on a social occasion, but I got the impression that he recognised what I was trying to do – and I have no adverse comment to make on their decision either. Hopefully, maybe the situation might change in the future in terms of where they locate some of their business.

Why is the promised target of 0.7% of GNP of development aid not being met?

We have said we’ll make it by 2012. I have put into my economic plans the necessary monies to do it. Fine Gael/Labour people don’t have it by the way – they haven’t included it in their plans.

Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte have both stated in hotpress that they are adamant the 0.7% target will be implemented if they get into government.

Oh, yeah, but they haven’t provided for it – they haven’t found out where they are going to get the money. This is one of my problems. I have provided the money and set it out over the next (pauses)...We have already increased it significantly to something like €685million this year – I think it was €108million when we went into office. It will be to the tune of €1.4 billion, I would say, by 2012. We will be at 0.7%. We have put that into our plans. The others haven’t. If they are saying they are going to do it anyway, even if they haven’t provided for it in their budgets, could they kindly tell us then what falls out of the budget?

The opposition proposals do appear to have merits.

I have been saying this for a week but I can’t get it into newsprint. This is the problem with this election campaign, which is the main point I want to talk to you about. I don’t have an economic plan or a fiscal plan in the name of Labour. What they (Fine Gael and Labour) have produced is seven promises in relation to health and pensions – two of which are flawed. This is all they have agreed on. They then say ‘our other strategic priorities’ – non-specific – (and) they put a figure of €2.9 billion onto those, and they don’t tell us what they are. Why do they do that? Because they can’t agree on them, obviously. If they could agree on them, I would presume they’d tell us. What they are doing is – we have €2 billion to spend here on health and crime – seven specific commitments. There are €2.9 billion spending commitments on other priorities – non-specific and undocumented. So we have a 40% agreement and a 60% fudge. That’s what we have at the minute. What they then do is, they play another con trick. Mr Rabbitte goes off and says what his commitments are as a member of the Labour party, which far exceed €2.9 billion by the way. And Fine Gael go off and do the same.

But aren't they merely making election promises like any other party?

But they are not the same commitments. They are spending the same money twice. People need to analyse what is going on here. This is a con job – plain and simple. When the election is over they are going to say, ‘Now we must negotiate the €2.9 billion’. All the other promises are going to be funnelled into this €2.9 billion magic ‘can’ that they have, which they are going to negotiate after the next election. So everything they are telling you in the meantime has a rider on it. This is treating people as if they’re fools. That’s a pig in a poke.

Fine Gael are promising to help reduce crime by increasing the number of Gardai on the streets.

Everywhere I go Fine Gael have posters up – 2,000 more Gardai. They have only provided €96 million in the budget – that doesn’t get you 2,000 Gardai unless you are putting them out on half pay! You need €190 million to get 2,000 Gardai. Then they say, ‘Sure aren’t you bringing in an extra 1,000 this year.’ So, now they want to take credit for what we are doing, as part of their extra commitment. Again, it’s really dishonest.

Isn’t it true that you weren’t going to deal with the issue of stamp duty for first time buyers. Wasn’t this something unexpectedly dumped on you by Bertie at the Ard Fheis as an election promise?

No, it wasn’t. What I said was that as Minister for Finance, I couldn’t speculate on what it was or what I would do or not do, because the market reacts to what the Minister for Finance says. Secondly, I said that I would do nothing that would disrupt the market – not that there would be nothing done. The third thing I said was that if people want to have an idea of what I’d be thinking about, I asked them to look at the two initiatives I had brought forward in this area, in my previous three budgets, which was exclusively for the benefit of first time buyers. But I am very strongly of the view that speculation is, in fact, destabilising the market.

But the opposition are saying your stamp duty reform has a flaw regarding parents being able to avoid paying tax on a house purchased for their child as a gift.

The point now is, we are saying, ‘Ok, we’ll abolish stamp duty for first time buyers – costs €44 million. I’ll do it to bring certainty to the market if the first time buyer is assisted in all circumstances. To kill any controversy. That’s the end of that’. Then Mr Rabbitte comes up and says, ‘This means that rich daddy can buy young son a house for €3 million and he’ll pay no stamp duty on it’. Not true – he’ll pay twice as much gift tax on it..

You famously referred to the Department of Health as Angola...

The Angola reference is often misinterpreted. It sort of warned me not to be humorous to politicians if they don’t take your sense of humour. Because what I was talking about was – you can have done a week’s work and dealt with some thorny issues, be heading for the lift to go home on a Friday night and suddenly some official would emerge and some issue that hadn’t been put across your desk has suddenly emerged as the major issue of the next week or month. I was sort of comparing that to – at that time the late Princess Diana was involved in the anti mining issue, and it reminded me of Angola where you could step on a landmine, suddenly out of nowhere, despite your best efforts. In health, suddenly something would come from left field – that was the nature of the business. It wasn’t a reference to the health service being Third World.

What do you make of Enda Kenny’s idea that publicans should have their own vehicle to taxi revellers home?

That’s nonsense. We don’t want a nanny state in this country. People have to take responsibility for their own actions. Again, many of them do. Most local towns have a taxi service. And people make their own motoring arrangements – young people, particularly, who have grown up in a culture where drink driving was never accepted. Older people that didn’t grow up in that culture find it very difficult to adapt. I think in relation to all laws, what we need to see is sensible application of the laws.

Do you enjoy a drink yourself?

I do. This time of the year, the summer, more lagers than Guinness. I have always enjoyed – I was reared in a pub – as a young fellow, serving in the pub I learnt far more there about human nature than I learnt in any university or school. I think it gave me a great insight into people. Sometimes, I reckon my political judgements have emanated from my observation of people and my understanding of what makes them tick. I find it very relaxing and I enjoy the company. I very seldom would ever drink at home. I know that younger people are different about that now. You have more people drinking at home then going out. But, for me, if I have a drink I have a drink in a pub. On my way home from a meeting, I would always go in for a couple. It is good to talk about other things and not to have your life dominated by politics. It takes up enough of our time as it is. I enjoy the craic and other things, local issues, local chat, sport.

Someone told me they spotted you a few times in the Pod nightclub.

No. I might have been there once in my life, but that was a long time ago.

Do you believe in God?

I do. Being a good Christian is a difficult thing. I don’t believe in the secularisation of the country. I believe that religion has its place. Spirituality has its place for people. It can bring a bit of meaning to life and a purpose. I respect those who don’t believe; I also respect very much those who do. It is certainly part of my life – as best I can.

Do you go to mass every Sunday?

I certainly go to bed with the intention (laughs). Most Sundays.

Do you believe in heaven and hell?

I believe there is a place beyond here, yeah. Hell is not the fire and brimstone hell. For me, one struggles with one’s faith all the time. It is like everything, you have to renew it. You have to work at it. You have a different perspective at different times of your life. But I am not a person who is dismissive of religion. I admire those who have faith, who live a life of faith, who find a great deal of contentment and perspective in their life as a result of that faith – whether it’s Christian, or Muslim. We are in a more multi-cultural country now, a more multi-faith country. That’s good.

But is the Church still relevant today?

I would be very strongly of the view that the values that have served us well historically are just as relevant in this era of prosperity today – that we don’t become a ‘me’ generation, that we don’t become a selfish individualistic society that fragments, but (one) where the values of solidarity and civilised living and dignity towards our elderly and providing facilities that enable them improve their lives remain. These are important values of society, ones that I think that are shared by all the parties, but ones that we need to give expression to more effectively.

When you see the photo of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness shaking hands, could we not be forgiven for thinking, the bad guys won? After all, Paisley blocked progress for years.

People change for the better. In changing, it doesn’t mean that one escapes responsibility for the past. But certainly by changing one can perhaps, to some extent, undo the damage. I think that is the hope that we all aspire to – that the spirit of the Good Friday agreement will give real equality and eliminate sectarianism. It is a very exciting time in politics. Ireland now can be a beacon of hope for a lot of people. I think we should be proud of that and acknowledge that politics – not violence – has been the method that brought us to the new place we are in today.

Photos by Jason O'Toole.


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