Irish politics in the gutter

Over the past week we have witnessed the character assassination of an honorable man. It shouldn't happen to anyone in our country, of course.


But it particularly shouldn't happen to this man, who happens to be Taoiseach, (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, who said the assault on his character marked a new low in Irish politics. He could also have said that it marked a new low in Irish life, in our belief in fairness and justice.

It will probably mean the end of his career. It is a frightening lesson in how an honorable man's reputation can be dragged into the gutter by the Internet, the media and a section of the public in today's anger-filled Ireland.

I don't have to ask if you know what I'm talking about. One count last week estimated that the story had been carried by over 500 papers in over 20 countries.

The headline was almost always the same: Irish Prime Minister Denies Being Drunk. What a laugh for the global media, as the Irish live up to their stereotype again.

The Irish economy is imploding and the Irish prime minister does a radio interview still drunk from a party the night before! It was such a great "Drunken Paddies" story that even the serious international papers all carried it.

The problem is that it wasn't true.

Unlike many people who have been commenting on the story, I heard Cowen's interview live last Tuesday morning. It was not one of his best performances and his voice sounded rough.

But he was coherent and he answered all the questions about the economic crisis and the upcoming budget during the 13-minute live radio interview without a problem. He would probably have been better if he had had more than four hours sleep.

The night before he had been at the celebration that always takes place during the Fianna Fail party's annual think-in. This year the three day event, attended by all the party's members of the Dail (Parliament) and by visiting speakers, was in a Galway hotel.

A lot of serious discussion about the enormous problems facing the country took place. It was heavy going for the participants. So it was natural that those involved wanted to relax at the post-dinner party on one of the nights.

Cowen, a sociable man, joined in the fun, telling stories and jokes and doing impressions. He finished his contribution to the party by singing the six verses of the traditional ballad “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.” He was the star of the night.

One of a number of political journalists who was at the party wrote afterwards that Cowen had enjoyed "a few slow pints" during the evening. None of the journalists there thought he looked either drunk or half-drunk.

Indeed, if he had been even half-drunk he could not have entertained the crowd so well with his impressions and jokes -- or remembered all the words in the six verses of “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.”

Having bonded with the party faithful, he went to bed at 3:30 a.m. Less than five hours later he was up to give the radio interview that has got him into so much trouble.

It was not a wise thing to do. But it is a measure of the man that he felt he could handle it, despite the lack of sleep.

My impression listening to it live over breakfast that morning was that he did all right, even though his voice was more gravelly than usual.

Within minutes, however, some of the Internet chat sites were poking fun at him, suggesting that he sounded bleary and that he must have had a few pints the night before. Such instant comment is not unusual these days. Thanks to the Internet, every half wit has an outlet and politicians of all parties are ridiculed all the time.

Nobody would have paid any attention to this except that the young Fine Gael politician Simon Coveney then sent out his infamous tweet saying that Cowen "sounded half way between drunk and hung over."

Notice that Coveney did not tweet that Cowen was drunk. What he said was that Cowen "sounded" like he was half drunk.

But it did not matter. He had used the D word, and the smear was then picked up by all the media at the Fianna Fail event in Galway.

Later that morning one reporter asked Cowen for his reaction to the tweet, and Cowen's denial then made it news. It's the oldest trick in the book because it gives you the headline “Taoiseach Denies He Was Drunk,” and the damage is done.

Even then, the story might have stopped there. But our national broadcasting service RTE, which is supposed to be run to the highest standards, behaved disgracefully by keeping it going.
They should have investigated whether Cowen had been drunk the night before -- all they had to do was ask some of the journalists who had been at the party -- before giving further publicity to Coveney's slimy tweet. Instead they ran with the "Denies He Was Drunk" story like the worst kind of tabloid paper.

What followed over the following few days was a media feeding frenzy as reporters smelt blood. This media storm did not disgrace Cowen, who dealt with it with his customary patience, calm and dignity -- and eventually apologized for seeming to be a bit below par.

Instead it disgraced the political rats who got it going, the media who turned it into a hurricane of hate, and a large section of the Irish public who want vengeance for the economic collapse and lapped it up.

The result of all this was that we embarrassed ourselves before the rest of the world. And in the process we humiliated and probably destroyed an honorable man.

There are many worrying aspects to this sorry saga. Is there anyone who can say that they have not at some stage turned up for work the morning after a late night and performed at less than their best? Not me, and definitely not most people.

In spite of that, it seems that there is a new puritanism at work here now. It's totally unforgiving and vindictive, especially where our political leaders are concerned.

Like rats on a sinking ship we are turning on each other. It's not pretty and it's certainly not fair.
Of course Cowen should not have done what he did. In the age of Twitter and Facebook and chat sites and all the rest of the Internet jungle, the rules for politicians have changed.

These days you can't be human in politics, you need to be an automaton. So a taoiseach who still likes to behave normally and who enjoys a sociable pint with his colleagues risks automatically being labeled a drunk.

There is another way of looking at it, of course. Cowen is a man with a natural gravitas and impressive intelligence when they are needed.

He is also a man with enough of a spark to be able to entertain a roomful of his colleagues on a night off. In my estimation, that is a plus, not a minus.

There is also the fact that, tired as he was from the night before, Cowen was still able to handle a lengthy interview live on radio -- and an even longer one which followed with the rest of the press -- dealing with the very difficult economic situation.

This is in stark contrast with the opposition Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, who relies on memorized answers and sound bites and gets hopelessly flustered when he forgets his lines.
The background to all this, of course, is a country that is depressed and angry. Everyone, including journalists, is looking for someone to blame, for pat answers to highly complex problems.

The truth is, there aren't any easy answers. So when Cowen failed to come up with any during a 13-minute live radio interview, he is seen as not being up to the job, of not being on top of his game because he was up late the night before, of being too casual, too fond of the beer ... of being half drunk.

Cowen has a lot of legitimate questions to answer about his time as finance minister during the boom -- but then so do all the other senior politicians, the bankers, developers, regulators, economists and all the rest of the experts who did not see the crash coming.

In spite of all that Cowen is head and shoulders above all the other politicians in the Dail, including some on his own side who are plotting against him. On top of that he is real. What you see is what you get.

He is a man of formidable intelligence, which gives him the confidence to feel he can handle a major radio interview without getting stressed, or even without enough sleep.

He is also an unreconstructed Irishman who likes a pint and a singsong and who is not too bothered about Facebook and Twitter. If all this nasty nonsense finishes his political career, we will be the losers, not him.

Think about it. We could end up with someone like Mr. Perfect, the tweeting Simon Coveney, as taoiseach some day. Then we'll all need a few drinks.

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