The 26 County Taoiseach Brian Cowen has been forced to apologise for a Tuesday morning radio interview that embarrassed his Fianna Fail party and generated widespread negative international commentary.
Following a heavy night of partying in a Galway hotel on Monday night, Cowen seemed to slur his words when he responded to questions over the country’s financial position. He and other senior figures in the Dublin government had been engaged in a so-called ‘think-in’ in the west of Ireland.
The badly disjointed interview -- in which Cowen depended heavily on jargon phrases and buzzwords, repeated in an unmodulated county Offaly accent -- was immediately criticised on internet chat rooms. The story was quickly picked up by international news agencies and published globally as an off-beat or humourous ‘filler’ news story.
It has since emerged that Cowen had been drinking until 3:30am on Monday night, occasionally doing impersonations of public figures for a coterie of hangers-on, including government ministers and members of the mainstream media.
The revelations have exposed and may have ended the tradition in Irish political and media circles that bar-room activities are “off the record” for political or reporting purposes.
Amid the furore, Cowen apologised for his shambolic performance but denied he had been drunk or hung-over, as claimed by opposition politicians.
He went on television on Wednesday night to say there had been no intention on his part to show disrespect to the country or the people of Ireland.
The Taoiseach blamed his performance on the “hoarseness” of his voice. “It wasn’t my best performance and I would like to apologise for that,” said Cowen.
He said people should not take any suggestion of disrespect or casualness on his part: “I’ve always taken my role seriously and ensure that I perform my public duties properly.”
He hoped the controversy would not damage his standing. “I would recognise that there are times when if something doesn’t go well that you have to acknowledge and be truthful about it. But, as I say, the assertions that were made subsequent to it were without justification, were without foundation, were not correct, were not true. And I would hate to think that the reputation of the country, or the office of Taoiseach would in any way be affected by what I had to say.”
However, reports have surfaced of undercurrents of discontent on the Fianna Fail backbenches and within the grassroots organisation.
It is widely believed that the current Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, despite battling cancer, is the preferred party leader among Fianna Fail members, while party representatives desperately seeking to hold onto their positions in the next election have long been rumoured to be planning ‘heaves’ against Cowen, but to little effect.
Tanaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] Mary Coughlan insisted tonight the Fianna Fail parliamentary party was behind the Taoiseach, as are all his colleagues who are ministers.
Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin said she believed the Taoiseach’s apology for his radio interview marked the end of the controversy.
Speaking to reporters in Dublin this morning, Ms Hanafin acknowledged that the controversy had been damaging but Cowen’s apology had brought it “to a conclusion”.
“He acknowledged the reaction and how it had spun out over the two days and he certainly came to terms with it himself and I believe genuinely that’s the end of the matter now,” she said.
Minister of State for Mental Health John Moloney denied the Taoiseach had an alcohol problem.
“I think the link that is being made to maybe alcohol, I don’t buy that for one second. I think he is a very able leader, most competent but most unfortunate, I have to say, in the attention the media bring to his leadership even down to watching his off moments. I think it is most unfair.”
Sinn Fein Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain said the issue was not the Taoiseach’s physical state but the state of the nation as a result of disastrous Fianna Fail policies which caused the crash and are now deepening the recession.
“The physical state of the Taoiseach Brian Cowen after the first night of his party’s think-in is far less important than what he actually said.
“He defended his Government’s plan to cut at least 3 billion euro in the forthcoming budget, devastating health and education and other public services.
“455,000 jobless people are now paying for the Fianna Fail binge of the past 13 years when their Governments, in league with corrupt developers and bankers, inflated the property bubble, leading to the economic crash and the current recession.”