And Now the Next Taoiseach

Brian Cowen will be Ireland's 13th taoiseach when he takes over from Bertie Ahern next month. JOHN SPAIN profiles a leader in waiting who is known as one of Ireland's sharpest political minds.BRIAN Cowen has a famous nickname which, this being a family newspaper, I cannot fully reveal. Most of you will know it already, anyway. He is known as Biffo. It stands for Big Ignorant F***er From Offaly. Now you could call Cowen big, although it might be more accurate to say that he is on the chubby side. He was not always like this. In fact when he was younger he was a trim and talented sportsman both for his school and for his hometown, Clara in Co. Offaly, where he was on the team that got to the GAA senior county finals in 1981. He is not ignorant. Not only is he a solicitor, but he is widely acknowledged as one of the sharpest minds in Fianna Fail and has put in an impressive performance as minister in several senior government departments, including finance. So he's not ignorant and he's certainly not stupid. As for the f***er tag, that reveals more about those who use the nickname than about Cowen himself. Cowen generates that kind of abuse because he does not suffer fools gladly, he is direct to the point of being gruff, and he is a master at the devastating put down, as the opposition in the Dail (Parliament) have learned the hard way. He swats them away like flies. They can't handle him at all, never mind shake him even slightly. So they call him Biffo behind his back. The from Offaly bit also is indicative of what's going on here. Offaly is in the midlands and there's lots of bogland there, so it's supposed to be an unsophisticated place full of bogmen. So the Biffo tag also carries the implication of rural stupidity. The reality is, of course, that Offaly is just like anywhere else in Ireland, and the county town, Tullamore, has everything you can find in Galway or Waterford or even Dublin. But there is a germ of truth in the Biffo nickname. The original Biffo was Biffo the Bear in the classic 1950s British comic The Beano, and there is indeed something of the bear about Cowen. He is a powerful presence, good humored most of the time, but not somebody you want to mess with. More than anyone else in Fianna Fail or in politics in Ireland generally, he is a formidable character, a unique combination of intellectual and bruiser. Bertie Ahern's style in the Dail or in TV debates was always to be ordinary and reasonable, a gabby conciliator, one of the lads, all hesitant and stuttery. Cowen is completely different. He sits there looking broody in silence. If he doesn't like what he's hearing he radiates menace. And then when he does speak he cuts to the chase and nails his opponents with an unnerving directness. When Ahern was in trouble at the start of the last election campaign as journalists began to turn every press conference into a Q&A session about his personal finances, the other ministers were unable to deal with the situation. It was Cowen, with his commanding style, who eventually roused himself and restored order by the sheer force of his personality. In a way, the Biffo tag and the fact that he is on the chubby side seem to help. He is younger than some of his ministerial colleagues (he is 48) but there is no doubt who is the heavyweight on the government front bench. It was simply a statement of what everyone else was thinking anyway when Ahern nominated him as his successor some time back. And there is no doubt that he is the best candidate for the job, and his strength has huge appeal to voters. There is another side to Cowen that appeals as well. He is laid back in a midlands kind of way that the Dublin chattering classes just don't get. Part of this is his apparent lack of ambition, although when a challenge presents itself he is never daunted or lacking in self-confidence. In contrast to some of the young bloods in the Dail (or even a few of the old bloods) whose ambition far exceeds their capabilities, he has a lot of cool. As he says himself, he got into politics by chance in 1984, following the death at the age of 52 of his father Ber Cowen, who had been a Fianna Fail junior minister for agriculture. Up to that point Cowen had decided he did not want a career in politics, perhaps influenced by the demands it made on his father and the way it ate into normal family life even at weekends. But apart from being a very good sportsman as a schoolboy in the Cistercian College in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary who excelled at rugby, hurling and athletics, he was also the captain of the school debating team and was already showing signs of the wit and intelligence that are his hallmark today. Unsurprisingly, Fianna Fail leaned on him to get him to contest his father's seat and soon he was in the Dail at the age of 24, a graduate of UCD and a solicitor ... and as thin as a rake! He was identified early in the Dail on as someone with considerable promise. He supported Albert Reynolds in the push against then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, and he was rewarded by being made minister for labor in 1992, the first of five ministerial jobs he has held over the last 16 years. He went on to be minister for transport, energy and communications, minister for health (a department he famously likened to Angola) and minister for foreign affairs (he became a key figure in the moves on the North) before he became minister for finance in June 2004 when Charlie McCreevy was sent off to Brussels. It is an impressive resume for someone who is still only 48, and his style has been to do whatever job he was given without any histrionics. He just gets on with it and does it, and always appears to be on top of his brief without too much effort. Cowen, the somewhat reluctant politician, is also someone with a very down to earth attitude who is still very much part of the midlands scene he grew up in. He likes a couple of pints and a sing song (well, he grew up in a pub which was the family business) and he is still a part of the social scene in Tullamore where his solicitor's offices are and where he lives. Everyone in the town knows him and he knows everyone (including my wife's family, who ran the local toy store in Tullamore when Brian was growing up). He has the lazy midlands drawl and the ready smile and the joke ... but you can sense the brainpower quietly ticking over in the background. He is very protective of his family privacy, although his wife Mary and two daughters have appeared before the cameras for the traditional ministerial pictures on budget days, and his wife is as social as he is and plays the piano when he does his sing-songs. The next few weeks before Ahern resigns as taoiseach on May 6 give Cowen a window to make plans and sort out what he is going to do. The transition should be a pretty seamless one, not least because Cowen is such a formidable performer in the Dail. The opposition Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny tried to characterize Cowen recently as someone who had risen without trace, but he would be very foolish to pursue that line in the future. It is true that Cowen did not create too many waves in the departments where he has been the minister. But a better reading of this would be that he is someone who knows what he wants and quietly gets it done without a fuss - certainly the senior civil servants who worked for him all attest to his competence. Nevertheless there is a world of difference between being a minister, even minister for finance, and being taoiseach. And the challenges Cowen faces are substantial. In contrast to Ahern's decade of Celtic Tiger glory, the Irish economy is now teetering on the edge of recession, or at least of a very low growth rate. There is a huge amount of unsold housing stock which is dragging the market down. And the tax revenues coming in are way down this year at the very time there is renewed demand for more spending in health and education and growing pay unrest in the public sector. The next few years will be